Good listeners. Researcher Thomas Fritz with the Mafa people of Cameroon.

Thomas Fritz

Feel-Good Music Feels Good Around the World

Feeling a little blue? Why not kick back and put Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" or Queen's "We Are the Champions" on the stereo? Chances are you'll feel more cheerful in no time. But what about people who have never been exposed to Western music? A new study concludes that even they can tell the difference between a happy and a sad tune.

Researchers have proposed numerous hypotheses about why humans make music, ranging from emotional communication to group solidarity. Other scientists, such as Harvard University linguist Steven Pinker, have countered that music is just "auditory cheesecake" with no real evolutionary significance.

If music is the result of Darwinian selection, it's likely that all members of the human species, regardless of their culture, will respond to it in similar ways. Yet investigating such cross-cultural musical universals has been very difficult. With increasing globalization, it is nearly impossible to find a Westerner who has not heard Eastern music or an African who hasn't heard the Beatles. "Someone may say that they have never heard Hindustani music or Japanese Shinto music," says Laura-Lee Balkwill, a music cognition researcher at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada, "but chances are that they have been exposed to it, on the radio, as background music in a movie or on a Web site, even as someone else's ringtone." And that makes it difficult for researchers to distinguish between musical sensibilities that might be hard-wired and those that are culturally determined.

To get around this problem, Thomas Fritz, a cognition researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, visited the Mafa people, an isolated ethnic group with little access to electricity, in the remote Mandara Mountains of Cameroon. He identified 21 Mafas who said they had never listened to a radio, attended a church (where Western music is sometimes played), or been exposed to Western music in any way. Fritz played these Mafas recorded piano pieces which had previously been specially composed by two of his co-authors, music researchers Isabelle Peretz and Nathalie Gosselin of the University of Montréal, to explore the ability of brain-damaged patients to recognize three different emotions: happy, sad, and scared/fearful. Back in Germany, Fritz performed the same experiments with a group of 20 Germans.

The team found that the Mafas' ability to detect musical emotions was far better than chance for all three emotional states. Whereas by chance alone they would be expected to correctly identify "happy" music one-third of the time, the Mafas correctly picked it 60% of the time on average. They correctly categorized the other two musical emotions about half the time. Westerners, in contrast, scored 100% with happy music and better than 80% with sad or scared/fearful music, the researchers report online today in Current Biology. The ability of the Mafa to detect different emotions in Western music, the team concludes, is evidence that this capacity is universal.

Balkwill says that the findings are "a good indication that these widespread associations between music and emotion cannot be dismissed as an artifact of exposure to the music of other cultures." And Fritz says the results support the hypothesis that music has evolutionary significance: "There is no doubt that music is a key part of what makes us human."