Music Resonates Across Cultures, Study Suggests

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FRIDAY, Jan. 16, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Certain aspects of music have the same effect on people even when they live in very different societies, a new study reveals.

Researchers asked 40 Mbenzele Pygmies in the Congolese rainforest to listen to short clips of music. They were asked to listen to their own music and to unfamiliar Western music. Mbenzele Pygmies do not have access to radio, television or electricity.

The same 19 selections of music were also played to 40 amateur or professional musicians in Montreal. Musicians were included in the Montreal group because Mbenzele Pygmies could be considered musicians as they all sing regularly for ceremonial purposes, the study authors explained.

Both groups were asked to rate how the music made them feel using emoticons, such as happy, sad or excited faces.

There were significant differences between the two groups as to whether a specific piece of music made them feel good or bad. However, both groups had similar responses to how exciting or calming they found the different types of music.

"Our major discovery is that listeners from very different groups both responded to how exciting or calming they felt the music to be in similar ways," Hauke Egermann, of the Technical University of Berlin, said in a news release from McGill University in Montreal. Egermann conducted part of the study as a postdoctoral fellow at McGill.

"This is probably due to certain low-level aspects of music such as tempo (or beat), pitch (how high or low the music is on the scale) and timbre [the quality of a musical sound], but this will need further research," Egermann said.

The Montreal participants felt a wider range of emotions as they listened to the Western music than the Pygmies expressed when listening to either their own or Western music. This may be due to the different roles music plays in the two cultures.

"Negative emotions are felt to disturb the harmony of the forest in Pygmy culture and are therefore dangerous," Nathalie Fernando, of the University of Montreal's faculty of music, said in the news release.

"If a baby is crying, the Mbenzele will sing a happy song. If the men are scared of going hunting, they will sing a happy song -- in general, music is used in this culture to evacuate all negative emotions, so it is not really surprising that the Mbenzele feel that all the music they hear makes them feel good," she explained.

The study was published recently in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

"People have been trying to figure out for quite a while whether the way that we react to music is based on the culture that we come from or on some universal features of the music itself," Stephen McAdams, of McGill's School of Music, said in the news release.

"Now we know that it is actually a bit of both," he said.

More information

The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists has more on music and health.