Let us start with a short experience. Open up YouTube, and listen to the first minute of the following three music pieces. After a few seconds, try to associate a feeling to each of them:
Did you feel (respectively) melancholy, anxiety and joy – or something close? Most of us did. Yet, there were no lyrics to help guide your feelings, none of the pieces specifically reminded you of any emotional movie scene, and all three pieces were played by the same instrument: a piano.
Why is it then, that we all feel this way? How can a pattern of frequencies arouse such universal emotions? Is it innate, or do we acquire it while growing up? The answer is uncertain.
Thomas Fritz, a German neurophysicist, conducted an experiment with 33 Maftas, a very isolated ethnic group living in the mountains in Northern Cameroon, who previously had never been in touch with our Western civilization whatsoever.
Three pictures of happy, sad and frightened faces were presented to the Maftas with each participant being asked to point at a face while listening to 40 different samples of music.
In most cases, the Maftas associated a face with the music in the same way that Westerners would have done. Thomas Fritz observed that quick rhythms were often classified as happy music while slower rhythms were associated with sadness. He concluded positively about the universality of the music-emotion association.
However, this experimental protocol is far from perfect, and did not convince most of the ethnomusicologists. Another researcher, Simha Arom, conducted research with Akas Pygmies, to whom he played different pieces of Mozart and Bach as well as jazz and country music. The pygmies told him they did not feel anything special.
The number of people who have never listened to any form of music is very small and continuously decreasing, we may never have enough guinea pigs to ever find an answer!
Vianney, Consultant, Leyton France