This is How Music Is Indeed a Universal Language


In the 19th century, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called music “the universal language of mankind.” He had no idea how right he was – a recent study concluded that music can have a similar effect on people from completely different cultures. 

Researchers from two Canadian universities, McGill University and University of Montreal, together with scientists from Technische Universität Berlin, traveled to the depths of the rainforests in central Africa to play certain musical compositions to 40 Mbenzélé Pygmies, an isolated tribe in the Congo, and study their emotional and physiological responses. The results were compared with the responses of 40 Montreal residents to the same melodies and it was found that the music caused similar feelings in both groups.

Our major discovery is that listeners from very different groups both responded to how exciting or calming they felt the music to be in similar ways,” said Hauke Egermann, one of the study authors.

The music used in the experiment included both western pieces and Mbenzélé melodies, making a total of 19 musical extracts lasting 30-90 seconds. The western music was mainly instrumental and included both classical compositions and soundtracks to popular movies like Star Wars and Psycho, covering a wide range of emotions – from sadness to excitement and happiness. The tribal music was comprised of upbeat polyphonic vocal pieces performed by the Mbenzélé Pygmies for ceremonial purposes, such to calm anger, to relieve the pain of death, or to attract good luck before hunting.

Since all members of the particular tribe sing regularly in ceremonies, the group of Canadian participants included only amateur or professional musicians. The researchers asked the Pygmy and Canadian listeners to rate the melodies they had heard and to determine how the music made them feel – calm or excited. At the same time, biosensors were used to measure their physiological responses such as heart pulse, breathing rate, perspiration, etc.

While the music preferences were quite different in the two groups, meaning the participants felt quite differently about whether the specific music pieces seemed good or bad to them, all the listeners showed similar subjective (emotional) and objective (physical) responses to the music, whether it was calming or exciting. The researchers believe that this has to do with the fact that some aspects of music are universal and can communicate basic human feelings regardless of the listener’s cultural and ethnic background.

This is probably due to certain low-level aspects of music such as tempo (or beat), pitch (how high or low the music is on the scale) and timbre (tone colour or quality), but this will need further research,” explained Egermann.

However, there was a difference in the extent of emotional responses – the Canadian participants reported to have felt a much greater range of emotions, both positive and negative, when listening to the western musical extracts, compared to the pygmies listening to both kinds of music. According to the researchers, this difference may be associated with the fact that music plays different roles in the two cultures.

If a baby is crying, the Mbenzélé will sing a happy song. If the men are scared of going hunting, they will sing a happy song – in general music is used in this culture to evacuate all negative emotions,” explained Nathalie Fernando of the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Music.

The results of the study were published in the journal «Frontiers in Psychology».