The Case for Musical Emotions

For many people, listening to music is a deeply emotional experience, but does that tap into universal emotions?

In a 2016 study, psychologist Heike Argstatter sought to determine whether universal basic emotions are recognizable in music across cultures. This built on her previous research which found that, within one Western culture, both trained musicians and laypeople consistently categorized the same musical sequences into categories based on the same basic emotions. Now, Dr. Argstatter sought to extend these findings to audiences in disparate cultural settings.

The study began by selecting two Western groups, from Germany and Norway, as well as two sets of non-Western participants from Indonesia and South Korea. They were then played the same musical sequences used in Dr. Argstatter’s previous work, given that this music was clearly recognized as evocative of basic emotions.

Even the written descriptions of each track in Dr. Argstatter’s study evoke strong emotions. For instance, the “anger” music is depicted as loud, fast, and showcasing rising volume or rapid fire (staccato) notes. Alternatively, the music intended to evoke happiness tended to avoid dissonance and feature an uplifting or dance-like tempo.

Overall, Dr. Argstatter found evidence that all participants, regardless of culture, would identify the same emotions in the same pieces of music. This was especially true for happiness and sadness.

However, there were marked differences between cultures, as well. For instance, one of the tracks evoking “surprise” was actually interpreted as “happiness” by the Norwegian, Korean, and Indonesian participants. Similarly, “disgust” music was classified in various ways as angry, sad, or frightening, though interestingly never happy.

Still, there were some systemic cultural differences, in that the German participants and, to a lesser degree, the Norwegian ones were consistently more likely to identify the music with its intended emotion.

Dr. Argstatter saw this as demonstrating a consistent “in-group advantage,” writing “This phenomenon is known as in-group advantage: emotional cues (e.g., faces or vocal stimuli) are better recognized if the stimuli and the participants stem from the same culture.”

It is important to note that this is not inevitable but takes some work to break through. Universal emotions, as discussed at length in this blog, are displayed in similar ways across many cultures. However, this study provides valuable insights into exactly how cultural differences do change the way emotions are expressed or recognized.

Thankfully, the study of cross-cultural differences is a specialty of the folks here at Humintell! We offer comprehensive training in improving your ability to read emotions across cultures and in communicating regardless of cultural differences.

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