Is music a universal language?
March 20, 2006 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Music and emotions

Why is music able to convey emotion?
Is music some kind of universal language?
Why is minor generally "sad" and major generally "happy"?
Why is there tension in dissonance and relief in resolution?
Are these relationships hardwired in our brains, or do we learn them?
Are there any cultures where these relationships are reversed, or don't exist at all?

I mean, when you get down to it, all you're describing is the vibration of air molecules, and how the pressure waves happen to resonate. If the emotional tie is ingrained in us, how would it have evolved? What purpose could it serve? Music as we know it today probably didn't exist 10,000 year ago, and I don't believe humans have evolved much since then...
posted by knave to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Music as we know it today probably didn't exist 10,000 year ago

posted by Jairus at 12:50 PM on March 20, 2006 fact, music as we know it was probably around 50,000 years ago.
posted by Jairus at 12:52 PM on March 20, 2006

I think the minor/major conventions are cultural. A minor key isn't intrinsically sad, but we are conditioned to think so. The emotion comes from the person making the music. We're sensitive beings and can see when someone cared enough to make the music. There's no magic but human magic here.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:39 PM on March 20, 2006

You might want to read this review of The Singing Neanderthals. This is a specific spin of the hypothesis that our ability to create music was a precursor to the ability to create spoken language. With the assumption that both language and music are elaborations of the kinds of social vocalizations that are observed in other species.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:47 PM on March 20, 2006

Robert Jourdain's Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy will give you a lot of answers. (Follow that link to search through the book.)

I really doubt ironmouth's theory that minor = sad and so on are mere cultural conventions. It seems easy to see how we learn to associate words with what they refer to: a parent always says "cat" when the child sees a cat, and eventually the child links the two. (I know that it's very controversial how babies learn language, but I'm speaking very roughly.) This is pure convention: we could just as easily have a convention to call that animal a "dog" or a "watch." Can you really say the same thing of the way notes and chords express emotions? Could we just as easily have a convention to hear the funeral march from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony as an expression of pure joy? How would you condition someone to do that? Or to hear the first note in the major scale (in music using traditional harmony) as dissonant and in need of resolution? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think it can be all too easy to say, "It's all cultural convention."
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:32 PM on March 20, 2006

Knave, you are asking a lot of questions here. I know there are some Mefites qualified to answer (and one may actually see the question and respond), but you're probably best served by reading a book about music theory, or taking a class on music appreciation. Check out Robert Greenberg's "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music" from the Teaching Company.
posted by jdroth at 3:35 PM on March 20, 2006

Is music some kind of universal language?

No. It isn't. It never has been. It never will be.

What is relatively new in human culture is the huge amount of mindless, invasive, recorded music dreck to which we are all increasingly, and usually inappropriately exposed. I've lived a pretty long time, traveled to every continent except Antarctica, and what I can tell you is that, usually, if there is music playing, nothing much important is happening.

The only emotional resonance most music that I have no choice about hearing has for me is annoyance. I hate, hate, hate movie music, and it has become painfully obvious to me in recent years that when others remark about a movie soundtrack, I should make a point of never seeing that confection. I blame John Williams personally for this development in my personality. Whenever I run into "background" music, I make a point of complaining about it. Whenever I hear yet another clueless piece of multi-track overdub, I complain about it.

Quiet, please, if you have any humanity.
posted by paulsc at 4:03 PM on March 20, 2006

Even though I did post in this thread, I also agree with jdroth: this is such an elaborate set of profound and thorny issues that they couldn't possibly be resolved in a single online discussion, even by those who are qualified to answer (which I am not).
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:06 PM on March 20, 2006

Response by poster: No. It isn't. It never has been. It never will be.

Supporting evidence for this claim?

Quiet, please, if you have any humanity.

I encourage you to just move on, instead of pissing in my thread. I'm honestly very interested to hear more responses about this. I appreciate the earlier responders and I will try to check out the books they've mentioned. Discussions here generally bring out some intelligent and knowledgable people, and I was hoping to leverage that.

By the way, I hate John Williams' music too, but he was neither the only nor the first composer to exploit music's emotional aspect. Particular composers and their works are not very relevant to my question. I'm asking a much more general question.
posted by knave at 4:12 PM on March 20, 2006

It's conditioning.

Try listening to music that was not influenced by Western tradition, or as close as you can get. Traditional art music from the Middle East will work well. Notice how they don't use our equal temperament system, scales, arrangements, aesthetics, focus duple and triple meter, etc.

Now: is it happy or sad? Are you sure? Where's the tension and resolution?
posted by danb at 4:37 PM on March 20, 2006

BTW, the study of the differences and similarities in musical forms between cultures is covered by ethnomusicology.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:13 PM on March 20, 2006

There is a significant literature in philosophy of music about these questions. One of the most prominent philosophers on this topic is Stephen Davies. If you are serious about pursuing these questions the articles on the linked page are a great start.

Another thing to check out is the last section of Jenefer Robinson's Deeper Than Reason.
posted by underwater at 6:03 PM on March 20, 2006

For an overview, you might enjoy these Music and Emotion course notes.
posted by tangerine at 6:35 PM on March 20, 2006

danb: You're right that there's music from other cultures that expresses essentially nothing to us. (Robert Jourdain talks about this in the book I link to above.) It doesn't follow that any given piece of music could express anything given the right conditioning.

There is something intrinsically serene about the first prelude in Bach's Well-Tempered Keyboard. There may be people from other cultures who wouldn't even get that out of it. But you couldn't simply condition them to hear it as, say, viciously angry.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:36 PM on March 20, 2006

A short, but fairly intense online paper, with a large number of other references you can use to answer two your questions is A Psychophysical Model of Harmony Perception by Norman D. Cook, Takashi Fujisawa and Kazuaki Takami Informatics Department, Kansai University Osaka, Japan, from Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Music Perception & Cognition, Evanston, IL 2004.

Since this is my day to quote online academic papers, I'll oblige again: ""We propose a solution to two of the oldest problems in traditional harmony theory: (1) why there exist both stable, final “resolved” chords and unstable, tense “unresolved” chords, and (2) why, among the resolved chords, there exist the two distinct modalities of major and minor, with their characteristic affect."

Their two conclusions in condensed form are #1: "...we conclude that the patterns of resolution and modality that have evolved over the course of a millennium in the framework of diatonic music have a straight-forward psychophysical basis. Unlike most previous theoretical work on the perception of harmony, we argue that both two-tone effects and three-tone effects need to be incorporated into the model as distinct auditory phenomena. Stated negatively, two-tone dissonance alone cannot explain the basic phenomena of diatonic harmony, but by introducing Meyer’s idea of tension due to intervallic equivalence, it is possible to develop a model of harmony that does not “explain away” the perception of harmony as simply a consequence of cognition, but rather is built on general psychophysical principles. It is worth emphasizing that the only novel feature of this model is the idea that three-tone combinations have a perceptual character distinct from and in addition to the character of the two-tone intervals contained within chords. This view is perhaps already “common sense” among musicians, who consider chords as higher-order musical structures that are “more than” the sum of their tones and intervals."

#2: "An interesting question then follows: How can the happy/sad affective dichotomy of the major/minor chords be explained on a psychological basis... In light of the fact that, starting from harmonic tension, minor chord resolution can be obtained with a semitone increase, and major chord resolution with a semitone decrease, the increased pitch of minor chords (relative to tension) corresponds to the idea from linguistics that rising pitch is used to signal weakness, deference or defeat; conversely, the decreased pitch of the major chords corresponds to the strength, dominance and victory that is signaled by falling pitch. The near universality of this form of “sound symbolism” has been documented by linguists and is known to have cross-species generality..."

But really,just go read the short 4-page paper. A fair bit of it is technical, but you can probably follow along even if you need to fast-scan parts of it. Then follow the copious references there and others have posted here, if you want more information. As posters have already said, entire courses and books have been structured around these questions.
posted by mdevore at 6:52 PM on March 20, 2006

Human neurology tells us a little bit about this, via cases of stroke. Very small strokes in the left hemisphere - angular and supramarginal gyrus area - can cause acquired amusia (inability to perceive music as other than noise) without other symptoms. Since this area is part of the large, amorphous language area concerned with comprehension and verbal thought (known as Wernicke's area), it has been proposed that music is therefore represented cerebrally as a form of language.

There's more to it - Geschwind and Brust have both written informatively about the topic - but the above is a layman's precis.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:00 PM on March 20, 2006

Like many delicious mysteries, it's probably a combination of nature and nurture.

In terms of harmony, the overtone series is pretty fundamental, i.e. it has groundings in universal laws of physics. We hear a doubled frequency as the same note somehow, and this interval which we know as the octave is the most basic unit in harmony. And this is completely cross-cultural, I believe.

But how the overtone series translates into our modes and scales is largely cultural. There are countless different types of tuning systems around the world, for example. So, all of these are accessing something basic and primal, I think, but how each cultural style is doing the accessing is going to be more understandable if you've been raised and educated in that culture. So a lot of it is also tied in with memory too; music connects to other parts of our lives. Think of how often we associate a song with a certain memory and how that makes the song more powerful. The power is not solely in the song or in the memory, but the union of the two.

Neurologically, I have no idea how this might work, and honestly, this is one of the few things I don't want to know. I hope it remains a delicious mystery.
posted by speicus at 10:02 PM on March 20, 2006

There is something intrinsically serene about the first prelude in Bach's Well-Tempered Keyboard. There may be people from other cultures who wouldn't even get that out of it. But you couldn't simply condition them to hear it as, say, viciously angry.

Well, I couldn't condition them, but society can (and does).

There's nothing "intrinsic" about any musical interpretation. There's a difference between describing a piece as loud, soft, fast, or slow, as opposed to happy, sad, romantic, or violent. We apply the latter labels based on culture and experience.
posted by danb at 8:54 AM on March 21, 2006

I'm about to head out for a party, since it's friday night, but your questions lured me to post. Don't expect a university-grade bibliography. And if you think Mozart is irrefutably a musical genius, don't read this post.

As an ethnomusicologist, I agree with the above statements that the relationship between music and emotion is socially conditioned. The notion of major and minor relationships between pitches, while based on simple ratios and con-sonance, is also socially determined. Many musical systems use notes that are neither major nor minor (think pelog or maqam), and in these systems, the notions of happy or sad are unrelated to pitches in the same way as the conventional European system, if a relationship exists at all.

In fact, music itself isn't even a universal. I am willing to bet neither is emotion.

In my experience, while work on music cognition has come up with some convincing generalities about the way sounds "reverberate" in the human mind, this scholarship is only too frequently unknowingly ethnocentric in its approaches. I remember sitting in on a meeting with a neuroscientist who wanted to know why some of us "understand" Mozart while others are unable to hear his genius. No joke. I know that's a crude example, but many scientists are not aware of the non-universality of the starting points in their research.

The real question for me is what is at stake in claiming that music is a universal language? So what if it isn't?
posted by billtron at 5:14 PM on March 24, 2006

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