Listeners from the two groups felt quite differently about whether the music made them feel good or bad, but they rated the songs’ exciting or calming effects similarly.
Stephen McAdams of McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, who co-designed the experiments, said universal patterns of reaction to stimuli, which are independent from cultural learning, may determine how people feel about music.
Certain features of music, such as changes in loudness, tempo ,and pitch, could be responsible for the consistent feelings people get when listening to different types of music. The Canadian researchers observed that faster tempos and higher pitches triggered excitement in the listeners, even when they were not familiar with the music, while slower tempos and lower pitches induced a state of calm.
Listeners rated their own emotions caused by the music, and not what they thought the music was trying to express, as instructed by the researchers.
But culture did seem to affect how people perceived the music. The Pygmy listeners found their own music more “positive” than the Western pieces, while the Canadians found Western music more stimulating.
“The role of music in these two cultures is very different,” McAdams explained in an interview. “We, in the West, have music that spans a whole range of valence and arousal ratings: slow, negative music, which is perceived as sad; slow, positive music, which makes us content, calm; negative, arousing music, known as angry music; and positive, arousing music, which makes us happy. Both cultures use music to modulate emotion, but in [Pygmy] culture, music goes into a positive direction only.”
The Mebenzélé Pygmies tend to stick to happy music. Whether they are mourning a loved one who passed away, appeasing fears before a dangerous hunting expedition, or trying to pacify a crying baby, their songs keep an upbeat rhythm and are meant to create positive feelings, the study explains. Music is used to get rid of the negative emotions.
It is no surprise, then, that many of the Pygmy listeners found Western music slightly disturbing or unsettling. The soundtrack pieces were chosen for three different emotions: joy (Star Wars), fear (Psycho), and sadness (Schindler’s List). When asked if they liked the Western melodies, they politely told the researchers, “It’s your music,” according to McAdams.
“The basic thing here is that music is only universal in some ways,” McAdams said. “There are aspects of it that are universal and they are related to this arousal mechanism, and there are others that depend on culture, on who you are, how you are used to responding to music.”
A 2013 study led by Daniel Abrams, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, found that listeners raised in Western cultures showed very similar brain activity patterns while listening to a 10-minute symphony. The similar response, detected in areas of the brain responsible for planning, attention, and memory, may explain why music can be such a powerful group experience, Abrams found.