Listening to the Star Wars Soundtrack in a Pygmy Village

A new study looks at how music affects emotions across cultures.

Four decades after the debut of the brassy score that announced a galaxy far, far, away, music from Star Wars has reached a whole other world: a Pygmy village in the Congolese rainforest.

The Mebenzélé Pygmies, an isolated group of hunter-gatherers in the Congo, took part in an experiment about music’s emotional effect on people from cultures with few common denominators.

Researchers from Montreal traveled into the rainforest to play Western music to 40 Pygmy locals , who lack access to radio, television, and recorded music. The Pygmies listened to eight instrumental pieces by Bach, Liszt, Brahms and other classical composers and to three excerpts from soundtracks for Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), Psycho (1960), and Schindler’s List (1993). They also listened to eight Pygmy ceremonial songs.The same music was played to 40 Canadians from Montreal, the scientists explained in their recent article in Frontiers in Psychology.

Researchers studied the listeners’ physiological and emotional response to the songs by measuring heart rate, breathing rate, palm sweat, and contraction of smiling and frowning muscles. The listeners also rated how each of the melodies made them feel with the help of smiley and sad faces.

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.

But Westerners also often listen to music individually, in private, on computers or iPods.

“In the Pygmy culture, they don’t have music to consume,” McAdams said. “They all make music together, all the time. There are no non-musicians.”

Award-winning sound and film editor Walter Murch agrees that how people react to music is determined in large part by their cultural expectations. In a series of interviews with novelist Michael Ondaatje, Murch recalled a summer cataloguing a radio station’s classical record collection, and listening only to medieval music for weeks. After listening to 15th-century music during this solitary project, he felt his ears were under attack when he heard Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion.”

“The rules of 15th-century music had been almost burned into my head after three weeks, so I could hear that Bach, whom we think of today as very ‘classical’ and ‘formal,’ was in fact radically advanced,” Murch said in one of the interviews, which was published in Ondaatje’s 2002 book The Conversations.

“I learned, viscerally, that what we think of as normal is largely a question of what we are most often exposed to,” Murch said.

But the film editor also defined music as “an emulsifier that allows you to dissolve a certain emotion and take it in a certain direction." Perhaps it's that quality, music's emotional power, that transcends cultures.