Saturday, July 18, 2009

The universal language

My first piano teacher was big into ear-training. At the end of my early lessons, Mr. Stahl had me look away from the keyboard as he played notes and asked me to identify elements. Is this interval a fourth or a fifth? Is this chord major or minor?

Telling major from minor was easy. Major was happy. Minor was sad.

Years later I sat in on an ear-training session Mr. Stahl gave for some of his younger students. "Major is happy," he explained. "Minor is sad." He played successions of chords and the kids called out responses ("Major!" "Minor!"). Most of the time they were correct.

As I watched and listened, a question occurred to my teenage self that I'd never thought about at age six:

Why is major happy and minor sad? It's intuitively obvious that they are, but why?

I remembered this experience while reading "Why Music Moves Us," an article in July's Scientific American. The article talks about how emotional responses to music are universal:
Several pieces of research indicate that music reliably conveys the intended emotion in all people who hear it. In the late 1990s neuroscientist Isabelle Peretz and her colleagues at the University of Montreal found that Western listeners universally agree on whether a song using Western tonal elements is happy, sad, scary or peaceful.

Music’s emotional content may even be culturally transparent. This past April neuroscientist Tom Fritz of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues exposed members of the Mafa ethnic group in Cameroon who had never heard Western music to excerpts of classical piano music. The researchers found that the adults who listened to the excerpts consistently identified them as happy, sad or scary just as Western listeners would. Thus, the ability of a song to elicit a particular emotion does not necessarily depend on cultural background.

The article posits all kinds of reasons why humans respond to music in the same way. Music excites regions of the brain associated with language. It stimulates other parts of the brain that govern emotions. Many scientists believe emotional response to music is epiphenomenal. That music affects us only because it pushes buttons that evolved for other purposes.

Interesting stuff. But it still doesn't explain why major is happy and minor unhappy instead of the other way around. Why dissonant chords are discomfiting. Why we go crazy if someone plays the melody to "Shave and a haircut, two ..." and leaves out the last note.

(You twitched a little bit just thinking about that last one, didn't you.)

Maybe it's useless being so left-brained about this. If anyone figured out how specific musical stimuli produced specific emotional responses, I would probably find the resulting journal article both incomprehensible and boring.

Even so, it's fun to think about the question.


wyvernfree said...

Repost from LJ: I was just reading something a few months about this. It had something to do with the mathematic principles behind music, and how universal they are-- just as people from all cultures recognize that a circle is symmetrical and complete whereas a lumpy oval or half-circle is not, they also recognize when a chord is complete or harmonic and when it is not.

The article I was reading didn't say anything about your question in particular, so this is total guesswork on my part, but I bet the emotional responses have to do with pattern-recognition and neurochemical reactions to feeling that a task has been completed or not. I'm guessing people from different cultures have the same sort of emotional reactions to visual art that makes use of symmetrical designs and harmonic colors versus those using asymmetrical, unpatterned designs and chaotic color schemes.

wyvernfree said...

Response to your reply on LJ:

Unfortunately I don't remember what the article I was reading was, as it was more than a month ago.

But I bet you anything that other regular patterns like checkerboard patterns do actually have emotional effects on us and we just don't always realize it. I suspect regular geometric patterns are soothing and pleasant, actually. You always see checkerboard-type patterns in bathrooms and restaurants. I bet that people would react with anxiety or discomfort to checkerboard patterns that were incomplete or messed up (some tiles in the grid left blank, one end of the pattern wider than the other, etc.)

cinderkeys said...

That'd be an interesting experiment. But can you imagine your eyes welling up with tears because you saw a checkerboard pattern?

Then again, not all music elicits such a deep emotional response. Maybe checkerboard patterns are like Muzak. :)

DeppityBob said...

"That'd be an interesting experiment. But can you imagine your eyes welling up with tears because you saw a checkerboard pattern?"

Mine do...but that's only because I used to play with...with Old Blue...


Best checker-playing turtle I ever had...