The cascade of drum beats in traditional Japanese music may lack rhythm to the Western ear. Likewise, an American would likely strain to discern a tonal center, or key, as a Japanese flute slides from note to note. And to many Western listeners, Japanese stringed instruments sound out of tune with each other. But while those who are unused to the conventions of another culture's music might hear it as cacophony, most can easily pick out the emotion the music intends to convey, according to a new study published in Japanese Psychological Research (Vol. 46, No. 4, pages 337-349).

Such fundamental aspects of sound as volume and tempo might underpin people's ability to understand music from unfamiliar cultures, says study author Laura-Lee Balkwill, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. For example, sad music in Japanese, Indian and Western cultures tends to use slow tempos and quiet sounds. Happy music uses fast tempos and is played more loudly, she says.

"In some sense, music is not strictly governed by culturally learned expectations," says Balkwill. "I think that is why music is considered to be such a powerful expresser and elicitor of emotion."

The basic rules for emotional expression in music unearthed in Balkwill's study may also apply to emotion expression in other communication domains, such as human language and even animal calls, says William Thompson, PhD, a University of Toronto psychology professor. For example, people generally label loud, fast speech as happy as well, according to a study by University of Toronto psychology graduate student Gabriela Ilie and Thompson that will be published in Music Perception later this year.

"Of course, overlaid upon those basic kind of features of music are some culturally specific signals to emotional meaning," Thompson says. Moving from a major to a minor key might signal sadness to a Western listener, whereas a Japanese listener unversed in Western music conventions may not catch the significance, he says.

However, much of the time we easily glean music's emotional content--a finding that counters previous research that emphasized interpretation problems people have with music of unfamiliar cultures, says Thompson. Furthermore, musical pieces can actually affect people physiologically and emotionally--as demonstrated by the increased heart rate and exhilaration many feel when listening to loud, fast-paced dance music, he notes.

"Music may well be the universal language," Thompson says.

Crosscultural understanding

Even before running her experiments, Balkwill suspected that music may communicate emotion effectively across cultures. As a guitar player and frequent concertgoer, Balkwill felt confident discerning emotional content in Western music. However she was surprised to discover that she could pick up emotions conveyed in traditional Indian music as well.

"I didn't understand the scales, the tonal system, the musical conventions," Balkwill says. "But I was able to tell the joyful ragas [improvised songs of Northern India] from the sad ones."

This insight prompted Balkwill to see if others--including nonmusicians--could also recognize emotions expressed in unfamiliar music. As a graduate student at Toronto's York University, she traveled to India and recorded professional musicians playing ragas, which make use of traditional melodies while adhering to formal scales. Balkwill collected 30 short excerpts of the songs--played on traditional instruments including the sitar and bansuri flute--that the musicians labeled as expressing the emotions of joy, sadness or anger.

On returning to Canada, Balkwill recruited 30 undergraduate students familiar with Western music, though most were not musicians. As reported in the fall 1999 issue of Music Perception (Vol. 17, No. 1, pages 43-64), Balkwill asked the students to rate the degree of sadness, anger and joy expressed in each piece on a scale of zero to nine. Though none of the participants were familiar with Indian music, their ratings correlated strongly with the musicians' intended emotions.

"Laura-Lee found pretty decisively that people can judge if a Hindu raga is meant to convey sadness or joy," Thompson says.

Balkwill extended her findings to Japanese listeners with her study in Japanese Psychological Research. In this experiment, Balkwill again used the Indian ragas, but also added excerpts of traditional Japanese and Western music intended to express joy, anger or happiness. The 147 Japanese participants--who were familiar with Japanese and Western music but not Indian music--judged the emotion expressed in the music clips, again using a zero to nine scale. The participants also rated the pieces' loudness, tempo and complexity.

Like the Canadian participants, most of the Japanese listeners correctly identified the emotion expressed in the music from both familiar and unfamiliar cultures. Moreover, they interpreted acoustic cues in predictable ways: judging slow, soft, complex music as sad; hearing fast, loud, simple music as joyful; labeling fast, loud, complex music angry.

The findings suggest that universal rules may underpin emotional expression in music, Balkwill says.

"Some ethnomusicologists say music is inextricably interwoven with culture, and someone outside the culture can't understand emotive content in music," she says. "If this were true we wouldn't have all these world music fusions, where musicians of different cultures get together and find common ground."

Biological underpinnings

New research by Thompson and Ilie suggests that the emotional-expression rules in music might also apply to language. In a study to be published in Music Perception, the researchers find that Western listeners judge soft excerpts of music and speech as less pleasant and energetic than loud excerpts. Future research might extend the finding to other cultures, Thompson says.

Soft music and quiet speech's link to sadness may derive from the biology of sound production, says Klaus Scherer, PhD, a psychology professor and chair of the Emotion Research Group at the University of Geneva. When people are sad, their vocal folds--also known as vocal cords--relax. This muffles the voice, making it likely that sad people will sing or speak softly. When people are angry or happy, the vocal folds tense up, which makes it easier to produce loud sounds.

Humans--and even possibly animals--could learn early on to link loud volume with intense emotion or could even be hard-wired with the association, says Scherer.

"It is really central for us to determine the emotional state of others," he says. "The voice may be even more important than the face," in expressing emotion, he posits.

Tempo may also be linked to biology--specifically heart rate and respiration, notes Thompson. A decade of psychological and sociological research has found that slow, sad music actually slows the heart rate, while fast music can speed respiration and pulse, he says. As such, music may communicate emotion by actually inducing that emotion in listeners, he speculates.

Though researchers have yet to find the source of music's emotional power, research by Balkwill and others may shed light on the function in music across cultures. For example, many cultures use learning songs--like the ABCs--and these songs seem to fit the "happy" emotional profile, Balkwill says. Babies' bedtime songs tend to be quiet, slow and calming, she notes.

While the music of unfamiliar cultures may sound foreign and even unpleasant to untrained ears, any culture's lullaby may help a child fall asleep.