Universal recognition of three basic emotions in music

Curr Biol. 2009 Apr 14;19(7):573-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.02.058. Epub 2009 Mar 19.


It has long been debated which aspects of music perception are universal and which are developed only after exposure to a specific musical culture. Here, we report a crosscultural study with participants from a native African population (Mafa) and Western participants, with both groups being naive to the music of the other respective culture. Experiment 1 investigated the ability to recognize three basic emotions (happy, sad, scared/fearful) expressed in Western music. Results show that the Mafas recognized happy, sad, and scared/fearful Western music excerpts above chance, indicating that the expression of these basic emotions in Western music can be recognized universally. Experiment 2 examined how a spectral manipulation of original, naturalistic music affects the perceived pleasantness of music in Western as well as in Mafa listeners. The spectral manipulation modified, among other factors, the sensory dissonance of the music. The data show that both groups preferred original Western music and also original Mafa music over their spectrally manipulated versions. It is likely that the sensory dissonance produced by the spectral manipulation was at least partly responsible for this effect, suggesting that consonance and permanent sensory dissonance universally influence the perceived pleasantness of music.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Africa
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Culture*
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Music / psychology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Sound Spectrography