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Is a Sad Song Sad For Everyone?

Written by on January 7, 2020

paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, the team identified 13 distinct and very specific feelings that the Chinese and U.S. subjects shared when listening to music, despite their cultural differences.

The music used in the research, described in the paper as “the richest stimulus set of Western music samples ever studied,” included classical, pop, rock, indie, hip-hop, R&B, country, film soundtracks, and more. An additional 189 samples of traditional Chinese music were also used. In all, the researchers gathered 375,230 judgments of the samples from the study participants.

In the first experiment, subjects listened to Western music samples (each of which was just five seconds long) and reported on the specific feelings they evoked, choosing responses from a list of 28 “categories of subjective experience” provided by the researchers. Terms on the list included “triumphant/heroic,” “sad/depressing,” “joyful/cheerful,” “awe-inspiring/amazing” and “dreamy.” The team then used data-driven statistical modeling to identify the 13 shared experiences.

The second experiment, which included the Chinese music, involved broad evaluations of the samples by participants—such as whether the subjects liked or disliked them or found them exciting or not. A central finding of the study, the researchers write, is that specific feelings “drive the experience of music” more than the broader features. “When we hear a triumphant music sample, for example, somehow it unlocks this feeling of victory, of achievement,” says Alan S. Cowen, a co-author of the paper and currently a visiting faculty researcher at Google. “We’re thinking of something basic about the human experience.”

Comparing Eastern and Western cultures is “a bit of a generalization,” Cowen acknowledges. But “it does capture an axis along which people do vary.” Differences in cultural norms and values noted in the paper include individualism in the U.S. versus collectivism in China and the relative importance of tradition in the two societies.

William Forde Thompson, a professor of psychology at Macquarie University in Australia and director of the school’s Music, Sound and Performance Lab, wonders about the role played by the global influence of Western culture. “The novel finding here is that there is a lot of overlap in how Chinese and American participants assign emotional labels to music,” says Thompson, who was not involved in the research. “This is important information, but it might be explained by the considerable overlap in exposure that participants have to Western media and the emotional vocabulary that is communicated by such media. It seems unlikely the overlap observed between American and Chinese listeners would be observed for all cultural groups, but that is an open question.”

That concern is echoed by Samuel Mehr, head of the Music Lab at Harvard University. “The paper raises a lot of interesting questions about how music and emotion work,” says Mehr, who also did not participate in the research. “This is a huge topic and one that we don’t understand very well at all, but [this study] does a better job than any other paper I’ve seen on the topic at figuring out what emotions are there, at least in the music that they are studying. But I don’t think we know at all how this generalizes to other forms of music, other cultures and that sort of thing.”

For their part, Cowen and his co-authors, including principal investigator Dacher Keltner of U.C. Berkeley, address the issue head-on in their paper. “In introducing quantitative approaches to study US and Chinese experiences of music,” they write, “we hope to set the stage for a broader project documenting shared and culture-specific understandings of music around the world. Different experiences may emerge when studying musical traditions from other regions, such as Africa and South America.” Of particular interest, they note in the paper, will be the subjective experiences “associated with music in small-scale cultures with limited Western contact.”


David Noonan

    David Noonan is a freelance writer specializing in science and medicine.

    Credit: Nick Higgins

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