March 30, 2009 It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words but the same image can have different meanings across cultures. Music, however, may bridge the cultural divide: a new study has shown that regardless of culture or previous exposure, people were accurately able to recognize three emotions in Western music - happiness, sadness and fear.

Researcher Thomas Fritz, from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany believes this may help explain the universal popularity of western music.

Fritz and his team conducted two experiments with a group of 21 Mafa, remote farmers in Cameroon, Africa who said they had had no previous exposure to Western music. They were exposed to 42 instrumental excerpts of Western music with different tempos, pitch ranges and rhythms including classical, jazz, rock and pop. A group of 20 Germans was used as a control.

They were then asked whether they thought each piece of music expressed happiness, sadness, or fear and to point to photos of faces showing the relevant expressions. The Mafa's ability to correctly identify the emotion was far greater than chance, picking the ‘happy’ music 60% of the time on average and ‘sad’ and ‘fearful’ emotions about half the time. The German control group, in contrast, scored 100% with happy music and better than 80% with sad or scared/fearful music.

Pieces with higher tempos were more likely to be classified as happy and songs with lower tempos as fearful or scared.

Most likely the Mafa were picking up on the same "tone of voice" cues used in human speech, said study team member Stefan Koelsch, also from the Max Planck Institute.

"Western music mimics the emotional features of human speech, using the same melodic and rhythmic structures," Koelsch said.

Music is often called ‘the universal language’ but there is much disagreement and conjecture around music, emotion and the brain – from how and why the emotional responses to music are created in the first place to the purpose of music.

The Scientific American has previously reported on a study that demonstrated music directly elicits a range of emotions: music with a quick tempo in a major key brought about all the physical changes associated with happiness in listeners. In contrast, a slow tempo and minor key led to sadness.

Some researchers assert it's no accident that music strikes such a chord with the limbic system, an ancient part of our brain, evolutionarily speaking, and one that we share with much of the animal kingdom. An interesting theory from Patricia Gray, head of the Biomusic program at the National Academy of the Sciences and colleagues proposes that music came into this world long before the human race ever did. "The fact that whale and human music have so much in common even though our evolutionary paths have not intersected for 60 million years suggests that music may predate humans—that rather than being the inventors of music, we are latecomers to the musical scene."

Karen Sprey