I wrote a paper at my university concerning the concept of the universal recognition of emotion in music sometime in the previous year, and I thought I would share it for comment and critique by my fellow head-fiers. Enjoy!
Music is a universal language. Through it all peoples of the world speak, and although the styles may vary between regions, all people still understand this language. This concept, however, has been debated by many saying that a person’s perception of music and the emotions behind it is dependent on the culture to which they have been exposed. The alternative view holds that the language of music is innate to all humans regardless of cultural background. The purpose of this paper will be to discuss these contradicting views as well as any evidence for either argument, ultimately proving that the society in which a person lives has not trained the human mind to react in a particular manner to certain sounds which a person hears, but rather that the psychological and emotional reaction to certain musical tones is innate to all humans.
There are three basic emotions a person feels when listening to music: happy, sad, and fearful (Fritz T., Jentschke S., Gosselin N., Sammler D., Peretz I., Turner R., Friederici A.D., Koelsch S. 573-576). This is an undebatable fact considering these are the three basic emotions of humans. Debated, however, is the reason why humans respond in these ways to particular attributes of music. Does this particular sound actually make a person feel happy/sad/fearful? Or has society merely associated these emotions with certain tonal attributes within music? If the reaction is innate to all humans it is considered a musical universal.
If a person sat down on a piano and began playing a slow song in the key of E minor the listener would automatically associate the sound with sadness. An audience in a movie theater can, at times, predict where the course of events are about to turn based on the movie score. A person enters a house. Music increases in volume and tempo. Someone unexpected is in the house. Classic. It is not unknown that the mind often associates music with emotion, but what is unknown is the answer to the question, “Why?”
The concept of universals (attributes common to humans regardless of societal situation) is not uncommon in this world. The “recognition of human emotional facial expression” is a prime example of a universal (Fritz T., Jentschke S., Gosselin N., Sammler D., Peretz I., Turner R., Friederici A.D., Koelsch S. 573-576). Facial expressions can be recognized by all people no matter the culture, allowing emotions to be communicated regardless of background. Another interesting example of universals are the similarities found amongst ‘counting out’ games, rhythmic methods used by children to designate a specific person ‘it’ (Arleo 391-393). Examples of these ‘random’ selection methods would include such games as “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe” or “Bubblegum, Bubblegum in a Dish.” Interestingly, these kinds of games are found around the globe, and all are strikingly similar. These are just some of the examples found that represent universals.
The degree, however, to which something may be considered universally shared by the human race is debatable. If a single exception is found to the commonality, it is therefore no longer a universal. In music there is great variability so finding a perfect universal could be considered impossible. McAllester gives his perspective on the subject:
“Let me venture the opinion, first, that there are probably no absolute “universals” in music. I say this simply on the grounds of human variability and complexity. Any student of man must know that somewhere, someone is doing something that he calls music but nobody else would give it that name. That one exception would be enough to eliminate the possibility of a real universal. But I think there are plenty of near-universals and, even though such a term contradicts itself, a near-universal is near enough for our purposes.” (379)
With this in mind, the search for universals in this paper will be not for exceptions but commonalities.
The question now to be asked is how does one go about determining these universals in music? He must look into the underlying structure of the music and the purpose for which it is used. This requires looking into the science and theory behind music as well as how music affects its audience.
Music in its purposes “transforms experience.” In other words, it changes the state of the emotional mind. It therefore, firstly, causes emotion. This emotion is often in the form of fervor such as nationalistic fervor (patriotic), consumer fervor (desire to buy a product), or religious fervor (worship). Music, secondly, also increases the dramatic level of an experience, or “heightens experience.” For this reason it is used heavily in theater, movies, and even revolutions. In the heightened experience music also allows a person to leave himself (McAllester 380). The writer believes that it is for this reason that music is such a heavy focus in worship: it allows a person to forget their current situation and ‘leave himself’ to a more personal level of worship of God. These uses of music are found in all areas of the world, thus proving the functions of music as universal.
Having focused on the purposes of music, examining its underlying structure will be the next focus. A basic structural universal that nearly all music of all cultures contains is the “sense of a tonic” or “tonal center” as McAllester explains (379-380). A tonic is the note to which a song or scale resolves. This characteristic is, as noted, not only present in westernized music but in all musics of all cultures. This exhibits the mind’s innate desire to have a kind of tonal resolution. Because this desire is innate to all humans, it is therefore considered a music universal.
Another structural universal is “pitch perception” (Harwood 525). The ear interprets sound based on vibrations of the basilar membrane. These vibrations however are incredibly complex and difficult to distinguish at the psychological level. Because these vibrations are so complex, the brain must determine frequency through alternative means than just analyzing the rate of vibration. To simplify the physics, basically past a vibration rate of 1000 Hz determining a pitch becomes reliant on other methods than the physical rate of vibration. This means that this is a psychological perception of what the brain envisions the pitch is. These pitches perceived by the brain are, in a way, imagined. The brain at this point is interpreting psychological information rather than physical information (Harwood 525). Because pitch is an innate perception of all human minds, it is therefore a musical universal.
Perhaps the strongest point to argue in the context of finding music universals would be “octave generalization” (Harwood 525). Octaves (a replication of a note in the higher/lower register) in all music mathematically should follow an integer ratio of 2:1 for the number of cycles (Hz) for a given note. For example, the note ‘G’ is rated at a frequency of 49 Hz. Following up the scale, the next octave of ‘G’ is rated at a frequency that is double (hence a 2:1 integer ratio) the frequency of the previous octave at 98 Hz. This doubling will continue with each octave: G1 49 Hz, G2 98 Hz, G3 196 Hz, G4 392 Hz... Octaves, however, in reality do not follow this with exact precision. Instead they are “stretched.” With higher frequencies the integer ratio is greater than 2:1, and with lower frequencies it is less than a 2:1 integer. This “stretch” is calculated by noting the perceived octave’s frequency. The precise perceived location of these octaves is consistent in all humans but is not consistent with mathematical calculations of the technical location of the octave. This proves that this ‘octave perception’ is psychologically common among humans and is not just a nature of the physics of sound. In other words, the only way the ‘stretch’ in octave perception could be possible would be if it were a music universal.
It has been proved that various musical perceptions and purposes exist universally, however the question of emotions in direct relation to music remains. In March of 2009 Current Biology published an article containing the results of a study on innate emotional reactions to music. Subjects were of the Mafa population, a group a native Africans who had never been exposed to Western music nor even listened to a radio. The subjects were played excerpts from Westernized music which represented the three basic emotions found in music: happy, sad, and fearful. The subjects matched the excerpts with the emotions they represented at an accuracy level above that of chance (Fritz T., Jentschke S., Gosselin N., Sammler D., Peretz I., Turner R., Friederici A.D., Koelsch S. 573-576). This proves that the basic emotional reactions generated by music are innate to all humans.
It has been shown that there are certain psychological universals that are common to all human beings regardless of culture. One of these universals is the innate reaction to music. No matter the culture or genre of music, there is within all humans a psychological reaction that occurs when a person encounters music. Because music in itself is a psychological perception, as has been shown, its effects on a person are universally applicable to all humans. One of these effects is the emotional reaction to music, whether it be that of happy, sad, or fearful. These emotions can be communicated to all humans, and music is simply a medium of this communication. This is why music truly is a universal language.
Arleo, Andy. “Counting-Out and the Search for Universals.” American Folklore Society. 110.438 (1997): 391-407.
Fritz T., Jentschke S., Gosselin N., Sammler D., Peretz I., Turner R., Friederici A.D., Koelsch S. “Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music.” Current Biology. 19.7 (2009): 573-576.
Harwood, Dane. “Universals in Music: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology.” Ethnomusicology. 20.3 (1976): 521-533.
McAllester, David. “Some Thoughts on ‘Universals’.” Ethnomusicology. 15.3 (1971): 379-380.
Meyer, Leonard. “A Universe of Universals.” The Jounal of Musicology. 16.1 (1998): 3-25.