Is it just an idea?

Is it just an idea?

With us in the West, party music blares from the speakers in a major key and a small tune puts us in a sad mood. You might think that the same type of music puts you in a certain mood, but other cultures don’t necessarily experience those feelings in that way.

There is still no consensus in science about how the melody key influences mood and to what extent this is universal or culturally specific. In order to contribute to this debate, researcher Elaine Smit of the Australian Institute, among others, Western Sydney University Research on isolated cultures in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. All societies listened to the same type of traditional music, but their exposure to Western music differed. In the end, 170 participants were told the scales and melodies in minor and major. They had to choose the one they felt happiest. The experience was repeated with sixty ordinary Australians and nineteen other Australian musicians.

The results were surprising: in all groups there was strong evidence that the major measures were more pleasant than those in the secondary. Except for one group: participants who had minimal exposure to Western music in their lives. For melodies, the evidence was even stronger: Participants from only one of the three isolated groups reported that the main music made them happier. Control groups in Australia found that the major strings sounded more cheerful. So it seems culturally determined that major chords elicit more positive emotions than secondary music.

Minor vs Major
Whether you are talking about a minor melody or a major key depends on the distance between the first and third notes of the scale. In secondary, there are only three tones between them and in four major halftones. This is why one also talks about a piece of music in, say, C major or D minor.

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Three explanations
How can great music make us happier? Researcher Elaine Smit says there are different explanations for this Scientias. nl. “It may have to do with the acoustics of the music itself. Take, for example, a major chord made up of certain sound waves. There may be something intrinsic in those sound waves that elicits a positive emotional response in us. If so, it would be separate from our (cultural) experiences with that agreement. And the reaction would be completely normal.”

However, Smit’s research appears to indicate otherwise. After all, the isolated residents of Papua New Guinea did not necessarily consider the main notes more cheerful. It could be the so-called familiarity effect† “We know from psychology that we tend to experience things familiar to us as more positive. In Western classical and pop music, major is more common than minor music. Perhaps there was a general in the course of history familiarity effect It was created for the major tendons and we simply test it as more positive than the minor tendons, because it happens more often,” says Smit.

associative learning
The researcher also comes up with a third explanation: associative learning could play a role. “Associative learning means that a particular stimulus (which will initially be neutral) is often combined with another stimulus where we are already feeling an emotion. We often listen to music in a particular context, such as a wedding or a funeral. A wedding is of course an exhilarating, often Accompanied by music. The music played there does not necessarily convey specific feelings, but our emotions are reinforced by the joyful context. If such combinations are made often enough, we glue the emotion of context to that of the music, as it were. If you listen to Same music outside of that specific context, there’s a good chance you’ll experience the same feelings.”

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It may also be a combination of these statements. To gain insight into it, you have to let people listen to music who don’t know our music. This is why the rare opportunities to experience this in non-Western societies are so valuable. “

Music also plays a major role on special occasions among the isolated communities of Papua New Guinea. Photo: Caroline Budd from Getty Images (via

cultural exposure
Music plays an important role among the isolated peoples of Papua New Guinea, just as it does with us. “We know from traditional music in the area we were in, that it was often played during important events, like a successful hunt, or sung when someone died. We asked what kind of music they listened to, and they mainly mentioned religious music or local musicians.”

But they did not recognize major chords such as happy and minor music as sad. “Our main finding is that cultural exposure plays a large role in the relationship between major chords and joy. We have compelling evidence that this is the case for participants in Sydney and that association is diminishing as cultural exposure to this type of music diminishes.”

In other words, the farther away a society is, the fewer people generally perceive music as positive. “It is important to add that we cannot rule out the possibility that this association does not exist. We need to do more research before drawing any firm conclusions.”

can open
But Smit is very satisfied with the results. “We got into it with a fairly open mind. We had strong expectations for people in Sydney, based on our previous research, but for people in Papua New Guinea it could in principle go either way. Expectations were also fulfilled for the Sydney group And for Papua New Guinea, the results are certainly very exciting.”

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I was also impressed by the hospitality of the participants in Papua New Guinea. “We were welcomed with open arms to Tawit Village and made us feel very much at home. We are so grateful that people opened their lives to us.”

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