What are the human universals in music?
New Scientist explores the ways in which music may or may not be “universal” to human beings. The claim that consonance and dissonance are shared is controversial, with one scientist quoted saying, “I think the idea that there are universal preferences for particular harmonic or melodic intervals reflects a pervasive western-centric bias in the science of music … It’s pretty clear that intervals that are considered dissonant by westerners are sometimes prevalent in other cultures.” But the emotional ethos conveyed by different rhythms may be a better candidate.
Music psychologists agree that these associations probably do come from the way music mimics emotional speech and behaviour. Happy people the world over speak moderately loudly, with animated voices and gestures, while sad people speak and move in slower, softer ways. We can judge music’s emotional state just as we can often tell when someone speaking an unfamiliar language is joyous, woeful or angry.
However, the emotional quality of music is more complex than just conveying a basic emotion such as happiness and sadness. Most music aims to represent not a single, uniform mood but one that is constantly changing. Many music psychologists believe that the key to picking up on this emotional flux rests on our ability to discern patterns in the notes and rhythms and use them to make predictions about what will come next. When our anticipations are violated, we experience tension; when the expectation is met we have a pleasurable sense of release.
If this model is correct, our emotional response depends on identifying patterns and regularities in the first place. So the question then arises: can we experience this moment-by-moment emotional landscape in the music of unfamiliar cultures?