Feel the beat: Do we learn to be moved by music?

Why do certain musical features sound happy, sad or terrifying? Studies on isolated tribes suggest that both culture and nature are responsible.

Lisa Shepherd
7 min readJan 6, 2023
Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

Think of the saddest song you know. It’s unlikely to be the same song I’m thinking of, but I bet our choices sound pretty similar.

Most sad songs have slow tempos, take place in minor keys and make use of soft, low notes. Happy, chilling and angry songs are no less formulaic — we express emotion through music so consistently that machine learning algorithms can sort pieces according to mood.

Music has a standard translation for just about every emotion, and we all speak its language. Listeners are able to consistently recognise the same emotions in specific pieces of music, even if they have no musical training. The 19th century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once called music “the universal language of mankind”, and anyone who’s felt moved by an instrumental piece or a song in an unfamiliar language will find it hard to disagree. Sometimes music can even seem to communicate emotion better than our own native tongue.

And yet, claiming we’re wired to think of certain melodies as tragic and others as triumphant seems like a bit of a stretch. Of all the art forms, music might convey emotion in the least intuitive way. We all understand why dim lighting adds to the creepiness of a horror film — everyone’s a little scared of the dark, right? — but it’s harder to explain why the Jaws theme sends shivers up our spines.

In perfect harmony

The relationship between the opening two notes of the Jaws theme is an example of something called a dissonant interval. In music, intervals are the distances in pitch between two subsequent or simultaneous notes, and they can be dissonant or consonant. While consonance sounds sweet, dissonance builds tension, and if we hear nothing but dissonant intervals for a long time — as we do at the start of the Jaws theme — we become uncomfortable or even anxious.

The distinction between consonance and dissonance isn’t arbitrary. As auditory neuroscientist Josh McDermott notes, “The combinations [of notes] that sound pleasant to Westerners have this particular mathematical relationship.” The frequency ratios (i.e. the ratios between the frequencies of the two different pitches) of consonant intervals are simpler than the frequency ratios of dissonant intervals.

For example, the consonant fifth (so-called because the pitches are five notes apart) has a frequency ratio of 3:2, which sounds just as nice and neat as it looks — think the jump between the second and third notes of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Take away one semitone, however, and you get the dissonant tritone, which has a horrific frequency ratio of √2:1. The tritone is so hard to listen to that 18th century musicians called it “the devil in music”.

Some people believe dissonance arises when we find it hard to determine the relationship between two frequencies. In other words, we subconsciously do maths as we listen to music, and we feel uneasy when the maths is difficult. The mathematical distinction between consonance and dissonance is why many musicologists suspect that our aversion to dissonance has a biological basis. McDermott was one of them — that is, until he went on an eye-opening trip to the Bolivian Amazon.

Photo by Nate Johnston on Unsplash

In 2010, anthropologist Richard Godoy, who had been working with an isolated Amazonian society called the Tsimané (pronounced “chee-MAH-nay”) for several years, invited McDermott to come and test the Tsimané’s responses to consonance and dissonance. Although many studies of consonance and dissonance had already been performed, they’d been performed on WEIRD people — people from Western, Educated, Industrialised and Democratic nations.

Exclusively studying WEIRD people makes it hard to separate the effects of nature from the effects of culture. Since Western music is dominated by consonant intervals, we might only like consonance because it’s what we’re used to.

Western pop music has diffused around the world so effectively that it’s hard to find people who have never been exposed to it. The Tsimané are one of the few groups left who fit the bill. They have limited contact with the Western world and therefore minimal exposure to our music. The Tsimané are so isolated, in fact, that it took McDermott and his team a days-long canoe trip to reach them.

In McDermott’s study, 64 Tsimané people, 50 urban Bolivians and 48 people from the US listened to a series of harmonies and rated how pleasant they were. All groups were able to distinguish dissonance from consonance. However, while the US listeners — and to a lesser extent, the urban Bolivian listeners – significantly preferred consonant chords to dissonant chords, the Tsimané people found consonance and dissonance equally pleasant.

“This study suggests that preferences for consonance over dissonance depend on exposure to Western musical culture, and that the preference is not innate,” McDermott concluded.

However, Daniel Bowling, a neuroscientist at Duke University, isn’t convinced that our aversion to dissonance is purely cultural. “The claim that the human perception of tonal beauty is free from biological constraint on the basis of a lack of full blown Western consonance preferences in one Amazonian tribe is misleading,” he says. He argues that nature and culture act together, and suggests we are born with a weak preference for consonance that is strengthened by exposure to consonant music.

So while Western culture probably taught you to grimace at dissonance, nature might have made you amenable to its suggestions.

But what can cross-cultural studies tell us about the emotional associations of other musical features?

The minor fall and the major lift

The happiness or sadness of a composition is largely determined by whether it’s played in a major or a minor key. As hundreds of YouTube videos demonstrate, playing a piece of music originally written in a major key in a minor key can turn it from joyous to morose. Happy Birthday in C minor wouldn’t be out of place at a funeral procession.

Video by Petrus Munteanu

This time, evidence from cross-cultural studies favours the idea that our emotional reactions are innate. Thomas Fritz and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences played excerpts of Western music to both Germans and individuals belonging to the Mafa. The Mafa are an ethnic group in Cameroon that, like the Tsimané, hadn’t heard Western music before. The researchers asked the listeners to identify the music as happy, sad or fearful. Germans and the Mafa both tended to label major key music as happy and minor key music as sad or fearful, although the association was stronger in the Germans.

So why did the Mafa agree with the Germans? Daniel Bowling and colleagues suspected that the ways we express emotion in music might mimic the ways we express emotion in speech. To test this idea, they compared the frequency patterns of excited and subdued speech to the frequency patterns of minor and major musical intervals. Sure enough, patterns similar to those found in major intervals were more common in excited speech than subdued speech, and patterns similar to those found in minor intervals were more common in subdued speech than excited speech. Major key music might sound cheerful because it reminds us of a happy person talking, while minor key music might sound more like someone who is feeling down.

Bowling found the same patterns in the speech of English and Mandarin Chinese speakers, implying that the association has biological roots.

However, not all cultures associate minor key music with sadness. Cheerful Slavic music, for example, is often written in a minor key. Not all Western songs in minor keys are sad, either — how about Lady Gaga’s Just Dance? And though we may quibble about its exact meaning, I think we can all agree that Radiohead’s major key hit No Surprises isn’t particularly cheery.

If we really are predisposed to associate music in minor keys with sadness and music in major keys with happiness, perhaps — as Bowling suggested was the case with dissonance — this connection has to be reinforced by culture.

Photo by Mike Giles on Unsplash

A universal language

So was Longfellow right when he called music a “universal language”? Partially. At the moment, the evidence suggests that musical emotions are based in both culture and nature. However, we still can’t be sure whether one is more important than the other, or how their relative importance varies depending on the emotions we’re trying to recognise.

But we can say one thing. Although the exact means of expression may vary, we still have yet to discover a culture — past or present — that hasn’t used music to convey emotion. Even if musical emotions aren’t universal, music is universally emotional.