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Emotion: What Does Disgust Sound Like?

Music can express six distinct emotions.

Image: Headphones with prickly ear cushions
We all have songs that make us happy, but sometimes music evokes more complex emotions.

Christine Mohn, a psychologist at the University of Oslo, asked 115 students to listen to a series of music samples and then match each with one of the six universal emotions that people recognize in faces: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust. Each of these, Mohn discovered, has a tonal counterpart we can identify.

Musicians collaborated to create original tunes to fit each emotion. While more than 70 percent of listeners correctly matched a screeching, high-pitched clip to disgust, they still had the most success recognizing happiness and sadness. The disgust clips were sometimes mistaken for anger, fear, or sadness. Westerners are inundated with music that's generally classified as happy or sad, so they might not be familiar with the "sounds" of other emotions, suggests Mohn. "Composers would not want to compose disgusting music," she says. "It would turn people away from listening."

Happiness and sadness are also easier to identify because they roughly correspond to major and minor modes in music, explains Robert Gjerdingen, a professor of music theory and cognition at Northwestern University.

Disgust, meanwhile, "is the hardest emotion to represent in music," says Mohn. "The visual system is so much more advanced in humans than the auditory system."

So if you want to be understood, don't write a song. Make a face instead. —Becca Weinstein

Crank Up the Emotion

The sound of surprise is a jumpy beat that rises in pitch, like each word in the chorus of "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da."

Soundtrack composers evoke fear in moviegoers with quick-moving music that gets louder and louder, as in the Matrix Reloaded's chase scene.

The nails-on-a-chalkboard sound of disgust is rarely found in coherent music—except, occasionally, Metallica.