STEPHEN McAdams, professor of music research at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, played movie tunes to Mbenzélé pygmies in the Congo rainforest to find out whether music is a universal language.
Here’s a brief interview that has just appeared in New Scientist.
Why do you want to know whether music has the same effect on everyone?
Every culture has music, so if we want to understand humans, we need to understand why music is there and why it is used in different ways. Deciphering what aspects of it are dependent on our basic biology and what aspects are dependent on culture will help us find answers to these questions.
You played movie tunes to Mbenzélé pygmies in the Congo rainforest. Why them?
Their exposure to Western music was nil: they are hunter-gatherers who live in the forest. They rarely go into big cities and they don’t have radios.
You also played the tunes to a group of Canadians. So is music a universal language?
In some ways, yes. Emotional arousal was the same in both groups – a reflection of whether the music was exciting or restful. That was assessed subjectively by the listeners, and objectively by measuring heart rate, breathing and so on. This common response is probably driven by certain acoustic properties, such as tempo.
Why would some elements of music do this?
Arousal is probably linked in evolutionary terms to preparation to deal with a threat or new situation. When music accelerates or suddenly gets shrieky, for example, it seems to cue this alert response – the heart rate rises and so on.
What aspects of the music did not prompt a universal response?
We looked at whether the music evoked happy/joyful or sad/scary feelings, and got a positive/negative rating. We used music from three films: the melancholy theme from Schindler’s List, the scary shower scene from Psycho and the upbeat Cantina scene tune from Star Wars. The Canadians reacted as you might expect. For the pygmies, we got no clear physiological results and subjectively, they found all the music negative.
Why might the Mbenzélé not like the Western music?
All the pygmies’ own music is highly arousing and positive. They feel negative emotions disrupt the harmony of the forest and they depend on the forest and so they want it to be happy.
What is the Mbenzélé’s own music like?
Mostly vocal, with some clapping and beating on log drums, but of a sophistication that is comparable to Western symphonic music, with extraordinary polyphonies and polyrhythms.
Did they have a favourite movie tune?
Music for them is functional – they don’t sit around and consume it. Music accompanies various kinds of activities. I don’t think the idea of having a favourite would make sense to them.