Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

It's just a sad song that pulls you along...

A student who took my Brain & Senses class last year just sent me a link to a Tufts University study, with the note, "I think you'll find this interesting."  I'd say that was an understatement.  But before I tell you about the study, a brief bit of background.

I have been fascinated ever since I can remember with music's capacity for evoking emotion, and in particular, the universality of the phenomenon.  What is it about minor keys that conveys sadness, and major keys that conveys happiness?  It's a consistent pattern throughout western cultures and genres.  If you really want to make people reach for the kleenex box, whether you're writing rock, country, Celtic, French lounge music, or Bulgarian love songs, put your music in a minor key.

This has a huge effect on choices in background music in movies and television.  Two students from my AP Biology class two years ago used this as the inspiration for their final lab project.  They took the same video clip -- some guys crawling across a field on their hands and knees -- and showed it to three groups of students.  In the first group, the clip had no background music.  In the second, the music was dark, minor key.  In the third, it was upbeat, bouncy, and major key.  They then asked the students questions such as, "why were the guys in the clip crawling in the field?", "who were the guys?", and "what emotion was evoked by the clip?"  They were also asked to note anything else about the clip they noticed.

The results were fascinating, if not surprising.  In the first group, the students largely expressed puzzlement about what was going on in the clip, and why.  Most of the second group believed the guys were soldiers in war time, commando-crawling across a field to keep from getting killed.  The third group thought the guys were playing a game -- manhunt, perhaps -- just "fooling around."  Intriguingly, there were members of the second group who thought the clip was slowed down -- and the third group thought it was sped up!  To me, however, the most interesting thing was the bafflement of the first group, who watched the clip without music, and couldn't figure out what was going on.   It's as if the background music doesn't just set a mood, it actually conveys information about what we're experiencing.

All of which is just meant as a setup for telling you about the Tufts study.  The lead researcher, Meagan Curtis, has found something intriguing -- that music's ability to communicate meaning applies not only to actual music, but to spoken language, as well.

Curtis' group used sound recordings of two-syllable words or phrases like "all right," "okay," and "let's go," and determined the pitch interval between the two syllables.  They then played the recordings for test subjects, and asked the subjects to evaluate the utterances for emotional content.  (You can listen to some of the recordings here.)

Curtis found that descending minor thirds and minor seconds were associated with sadness; ascending minor seconds and either ascending or descending diminished fifths with anger; and either ascending or descending major seconds, perfect fourths, and perfect fifths as conveying positive emotions such as happiness or pleasure.

What I find most astonishing about this is how consistent these findings are.  The ethnic origin of the test subject didn't seem to matter; nor did age, gender, or any other obvious demographic.  There is something about musical intervals that conveys meaning, and it works across just about every group -- leading me to wonder if it might not be hard-wired into the brain.  But how?  And why?  It's certain that picking up social cues in language is pretty critical, and having it encoded this way -- through musical intervals rather than actual phonetic content -- is a much less language-specific, and thus more potentially universal, way to do it.  But how on earth could such a thing be wired into the human brain?

I wonder how this perception affects the use of tonality in tonal languages, such as Mandarin and Thai, in which pitch changes within a word communicate meaning.  Do they use minor-key tonal intervals for negative words, and major-key intervals for positive words?  I know almost nothing about Asian languages, so it really is just an idle speculation -- but it would be an interesting thing to look into.

Of course, it then brings up a deeper question, of the chicken-and-egg variety; which came first, our perception of minor key music as sad, or our perception of a minor interval in spoken language as conveying negative emotions?  Given Curtis' study, I would strongly suspect the latter.  We know for certain that music is a very, very old phenomenon, confirmed by the recent discovery of a flute made out of bone that dates from the time of the Neanderthals.  It appears that the capacity for using music to evoke emotion is something that is so fundamental that it not only has driven every known culture to make music -- it directs how we communicate emotion even in our spoken language.

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