Musical Minds

What we hear, how we hear it, and why

Posted Oct 03, 2011

Image courtesy ky_olsen at Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Investigations into the emotionality of music initially focused on how listeners were affected by the music of their own culture. In recent years, however, scientists have used the methods of cognitive psychology to compare the emotional responses of music listeners in different societies and identified specific properties of music that carry emotional weight across cultures.

In 2004, for example, researchers rounded up nearly 150 Japanese volunteers and asked them to listen to passages of Japanese, Western, and Hindustani music. Listeners rated the degree of joy, anger, and sadness conveyed in each piece of music. The researchers discovered that particular acoustic cues were associated with particular emotions. Joy was associated with fast, melodically simple tunes; sadness was linked to slow, complex pieces; and loud, complex passages were perceived as portraying anger. At least some of music's emotional meaning appears to be carried in psychophysical cues that transcend culture.

A few years later, Steven Morrison and his colleagues at the University of Washington investigated how our psychological engagement with music is acquired through socialization and enculturation. Children and adults in the United States listened to simple and complex melodies from Western and Turkish classical songs. When asked to recall aspects of the melodies, children and adults performed about the same for most tasks: They recalled music from their home culture more easily than they recalled music from the foreign culture, and they recalled simple melodies more easily than complex ones. Adults, however, were much better than children at remembering complex melodies but only of Western music. The adults were culturally familiar with the music, more so than the young children. Their greater familiarity allowed them to process the complex melodies deeply and thoroughly, which leads to superior recall.

Another study suggests that one's cultural and linguistic background can have an impact on musical talent. Absolute pitch, coveted by most musicians, is the ability to correctly identify or produce any note without using a reference tone. In 2006, an international team of researchers tested Chinese and American musicians and found that Chinese musicians were far more likely than Americans to possess absolute pitch. The explanation for this striking difference apparently lies in language. The Chinese musicians spoke Mandarin, a tonal language in which the pitch of a word can change its meaning. (The word ma, for example, means "mother" in first tone, "hemp" in second tone, "horse" in third tone, and an expression of disapproval in fourth tone.) Mandarin speakers acquire the ability to identify tonal differences very early in life, during the critical language period around age 2, and this ability appears to carry over into absolute pitch in music.

The implications of these studies are exciting. If cultural upbringing and language can influence the way we hear and experience music, imagine how else cultural factors might affect our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. We'll investigate this line of inquiry in future posts.



Balkwill, L.-L., Thompson, W. F., & Matsunaga, R. (2004). Recognition of emotion in Japanese, Western, and Hindustani music by Japanese listeners. Japanese Psychological Research, 46(4), 337-349.

Deutsch, D., Henthorn, T., Marvin, E., & Xu, H. (2006). Absolute pitch among American and Chinese conservatory students: Prevalence differences, and evidence for a speech-related critical period. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 119, 719-722.

Morrison, S., Demorest, S., & Stambaugh, L. (2008). Enculturation effects in music cognition: The role of age and music complexity. Journal of Research in Music Education, 56(2), 118-129.