Western Music's Universal Appeal Explained

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
March 20, 2009

Elvis croons in Ecuador and Kylie Minogue trills in Kazakhstan: Western music has pervaded every corner of the globe.

Now this popularity has been partially explained: New research suggests that Western tunes—even with no words—can convey emotion across cultural barriers.

Thomas Fritz, from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, played a selection of Western songs (including classical, rock, pop, and jazz) to members of the Mafa, one of about 250 ethnic groups in Cameroon.

Fritz recruited 21 volunteers who had never heard Western music before and played 42 excerpts of instrumental songs for them.

In each case he asked them to indicate whether they thought a piece of music expressed happiness, sadness, or fear. The participants were to point to photos of faces showing the relevant expressions.

Despite never having heard Western music before, the Mafa people correctly identified the emotion more often than would be expected by chance.

And they were quick to indicate their preferences too.

"We played them some extreme rock-and-roll from [1960s U.S. surf rockers] The Ventures," Fritz said.

"Some people told us it sounded like frogs croaking and was terrible, while others said, 'Wow, this is good.'"

Most likely the Mafa were picking up on the same "tone of voice" cues used in human speech, said study team member Stefan Koelsch, also from the Max Planck Institute.

"Western music mimics the emotional features of human speech, using the same melodic and rhythmic structures," Koelsch said.

The findings are published in the current issue of the journal Current Biology.

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