60-Second Science

Emotion in Music Mirrors Speech

Tonal relationships that express emotions in classical South Indian music are similar to ones used in Western music, and both mimic vocalizations. Cynthia Graber reports

When you hear Western music, you generally get the emotional tone. A major key is happy. (music plays) A minor one? That’s sad. (music plays)

And spoken voices reflect this tonality. Here’s someone sounding positive: “I don’t know who made this cake but it is fantastic!” And down on his luck: “The papers finalizing the divorce came today.”

The researchers wanted to know: Are these sounds international? So they turned to classical music from southern India. Here’s one that represents joy. (raga plays) Another displays grief and sadness. (raga plays) As for the spoken word, I bet you can tell the positive speaker (woman speaks) from the negative one (woman speaks).

The researchers analyzed music and 20 native Tamil and American English speakers for a variety of sound and tone parameters. The authors say that certain emotional tones seem to be cross-cultural, and that music mimics voice. The research was published in the journal Public Library of Science One. [Daniel Liu Bowling et al., "Expression of Emotion in Eastern and Western Music Mirrors Vocalization"]

So we may often be able to understand the moods of a culture in music and even in speech – without understanding a word.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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