Is it just an idea?

With us in the West, party music blasts from the speakers at a high key and a little melody puts us in a melancholic mood. You might think that the type of music puts you in a certain mood, but other cultures don’t experience those emotions the same way.

There is still no consensus in science about how the key of a melody affects mood and to what extent it is universally or culturally determined. Contributing to this debate are Australian Institute researcher Elaine Smit, among others; University of Western Sydney Research on isolated cultures in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. All the communities listened to the same type of classical music, but their exposure to western music varied. In the end 170 participants were told both minor and major scales and melodies. They have to choose what makes them happy. The experiment was repeated with sixty normal Australians and another nineteen Australian musicians.

The results were surprising: In all groups there was strong evidence that larger doses were happier than smaller ones. Except for one group: participants who had minimal exposure to Western music in their lifetime. For melodies, the evidence was even stronger: participants in one of the three isolation groups reported that the main music made them happier. Control groups in Australia found the key chords to sound much happier. Thus, it seems culturally determined that major tones evoke more positive emotions than minor tones.

Minor vs Major
Whether you’re talking about a minor melody or a major key depends on the distance between the first and third notes of a measure. The minor has only three semitones between them and the major four semitones. That is why one speaks of a piece of music, for example, in C major or D minor.

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Three explanations
How can mainstream music make us happy? There are various explanations for this, says researcher Elaine Schmidt “It may have something to do with the acoustics of music. For example, a major chord with certain sound waves. There may be something inherent in those sound waves that elicits a positive emotional response in us. If so, it is separate from our (cultural) experiences with this accord and the response is completely natural.

However, Schmitt’s research suggests otherwise. After all, the isolated people of Papua New Guinea don’t find keynotes very pleasant. It is possible to call it Familiarity effect† “We know from psychology that we tend to experience things that are familiar to us more positively. In Western classical and pop music, major is generally more common than minor. Over the course of history, there may have been a general Familiarity effect “Made for major rings and we experience them more positively than minor rings because they occur more often,” says Schmidt.

Collaborative learning
The researcher comes up with a third explanation: associative learning can play a role. “Associative learning is when a particular stimulus (initially neutral) is often paired with another stimulus for which we already experience an emotion. We often hear music in a particular context, such as a wedding or funeral. A wedding is certainly a joyous affair, often accompanied by music. The music played there is a There is no need to express a specific emotion, but our emotions are reinforced by a happy environment. If such combinations are frequent enough, we attach the emotions of the environment to the music. If you listen to the same music outside of that specific context, you are more likely to experience the same emotion.”

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It can also be a combination of these statements. You have to let people who don’t know our music listen to it to get an insight into it. “That’s why the rare opportunity to test it in non-Western societies is so valuable.”

Music plays an important role on special occasions in isolated communities in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Caroline Pott of Getty Images (via

cultural expression
Music plays an important role among the isolated people of Papua New Guinea, as it does with us. “From the traditional music in the area we were in, we know that it is often played during important events like a successful hunt or sung when someone dies. We asked them what kind of music they listen to, and they mainly mentioned religious music or local musicians.

But they do not recognize big music as happy and small music as sad. “Our main conclusion is that cultural exposure plays a large role in the relationship between key chords and happiness. We have ample evidence that this applies to participants in Sydney, and that the association is diminishing as cultural exposure to this type of music decreases.”

In other words, the more distant the community, the less people viewed music positively. “It is important to add that we cannot rule out the possibility that they do not have that association. We need to do more research before making any firm conclusions.

Open can
But Smith is very satisfied with the results. “We went into it with a very open mind. We had strong expectations for the people in Sydney based on our previous research, but it could in principle go either way for the people in Papua New Guinea. The expectations for the Sydney team have also been met, and the results in Papua New Guinea are certainly very impressive.

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He was also impressed by the hospitality of the participants in Papua New Guinea. “We were welcomed with open arms in Dovet Village and we felt very much at home. We are very grateful that people opened their lives to us.

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