A study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts suggests that different cultures rely on similar acoustic elements to convey emotion within music. When study participants were presented with excerpts of both familiar and unfamiliar musical styles, they showed a similar emotional response to both styles, as measured by the number of “chills” they experienced when hearing the music.
While musical styles vary greatly from culture to culture, there has been much research interest in unearthing musical features that tend to be shared across cultures. By exploring these common elements, psychologists are able to get closer to understanding the cognitive mechanism underlying our experience of music.
Study authors Eleonora J. Beier and her team conducted a study to see whether people would show similar emotional responses to music from familiar and unfamiliar cultures. If people are able to feel emotions in response to unfamiliar music, this would suggest that they are relying on cross-cultural musical features to infer emotional meaning from the music. As a measure of emotional response, the researchers focused on the “chill” response — a pleasurable skin tingling that occurs in reaction to emotionally intense music.
The study sample was comprised of 62 undergraduate students from different cultural backgrounds, who varied in their familiarity with Western classical, Hindustani classical, and traditional Chinese music. The students were presented with four excerpts of each of these musical styles and were asked to press a button every time they felt a chill. As a second indication of a chill response, skin conductance was also measured using electrodes place in the participants’ hands. The researchers only considered chill responses that were measured via skin conductance and also accompanied by a button press, resulting in a total of 910 chills for analysis.
After an extensive series of analyses, the results showed that participants were just as likely to experience chills to musical styles they were unfamiliar with, as they were to music they knew well. However, there was some evidence that knowledge of a musical style does elicit more chills to that style.
Regardless of how familiar the students said they were with each musical style, the researchers had the students complete tests at the end of the study to assess their knowledge of each musical style. “We found that knowledge was related to the number of chills, partially supporting the idea that knowledge of each style leads to more chills to music of that style,” Beier and her team report. “In particular, we found that chills to Western music were related to music theory knowledge, chills to Chinese music to Chinese music knowledge, and chills to Indian music to Chinese, Indian and music theory knowledge.”
Finally, the results offered insight into the acoustic properties of music that may be responsible for eliciting a chill response. Across all three styles, loudness, brightness, and roughness of the music were correlated with chill responses. These results suggest that the same properties that lead to chills in Western music also produce chills in musical styles from other cultures.
In contrast to the perspective that people are unable to infer meaning from music originating from unfamiliar cultures, the findings suggest that people can infer the emotionality of music through the interpretation of common acoustic properties. Still, Beier and colleagues note that there are many ways that music and meaning are experienced, and that felt emotion is only one of them. The authors stipulate that their experiment, “does not deny the importance of cultural context and enculturation in the communication of musical meaning.”
The study, “Do you chill when I chill? A cross-cultural study of strong emotional responses to music”, was authored by Eleonora J. Beier, Petr Janata, Justin C. Hulbert, and Fernanda Ferreira.