From pygmies to hipsters, scientists find music really is universal

Researchers tested Mbenzélé Pygmies' responses to western music

Nick Clark
Wednesday 07 January 2015 23:13 GMT
Baka pygmies celebrating with dance and music. File photo
Baka pygmies celebrating with dance and music. File photo (Corbis)

The 19th century writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called music the “universal language of mankind” and now there may be scientific proof he was right.

Whether enjoyed by a hipster in a dive bar in downtown Montreal or at a Pygmy ceremony in the depths of the Congolese rainforest new research has found that music can emotionally affect different groups in precisely the same way.

Academic researchers travelled to the Congo to study how an isolated group responded to music from Wagner to Star Wars. The Mbenzélé Pygmies live without radio, television and even electricity.

They compared the results with the way a group of Canadians from downtown Montreal responded to the same, largely classical, western music and that created by the Pygmies.

"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," said Stephen McAdams, from McGill's Schulich School of Music. "Now we know that it is actually a bit of both."

Those participating would mark the end of each clip with an emoticon expressing how the music made them feel from a range of calm to excited. There were also tests using biosensors to check heart rate and sweat on the palms, the breathing rate and little sensors to measure changes in smiling and frowning muscles.

Professor McAdams said the “arousal dimension in some of the fast-paced music as well as the slower-paced pieces caused the same response. There are a lot of different responses to music, often down to cultural issues, but there are universal ones too.”

The team, made up of researchers from McGill University, Technische Universitat Berlin and l'Université de Montréal, played both groups 19 musical extracts of between 30 and 90 seconds long. They were comprised of 11 western pieces and eight by the Pygmies.

Hauke Egermann, who is based at the Berlin institution but did part of the research at McGill, said: “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.”

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He continued: “This is probably due to certain low-level aspects of music such as tempo, pitch and timbre, but this will need further research.”

Researchers chose western music designed to provoke a range of emotions from calm to excitement, happiness to anxiety. It included the theme tunes to films including Psycho and Schindler’s List but the list was largely classical music including Mendelssohn, Liszt and Brahms.

The Pygmy music was comprised of upbeat polyphonic vocal pieces which are performed in ceremonies to calm anger, provide comfort after a death, or bid good future before a hunting expedition.

The Canadians involved in the study were all amateur or professional musicians. A total of a 40 of each group took part.

One principal difference was in the extent of emotional responses, with the Canadians experiencing a wider range than their counterparts. The researchers thought it may be down to the role of music in the different cultures.

Nathalie Fernando, of l'Université de Montréal, has studied the Mbenzélé tribe for a decade and said negative emotions “are felt to disturb the harmony of the forest in Pygmy culture and are therefore dangerous”.

She continued: “In general music is used in this culture to evacuate all negative emotions, so it is not really surprising that the Mbenzélé feel that all the music they hear makes them feel good.”

Previously researcher Thomas Fritz, from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, found similar results with western music among remote farmers in Cameroon. Some have put the universal nature of music down to the limbic system in the brain.

Last year Stanford University neuroscientist Daniel Abrams found similar results when he scanned the brain patterns of different listeners.

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