Does music strike a chord with everyone?

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.


6 thoughts on “Does music strike a chord with everyone?

  1. Prof. Huckabee points to a patient with dementia named Henry, who has lived in a nursing home for 10 years and who experiences seizures and depression.

    Though he barely recognizes his own daughter and rarely answers questions asked of him, during and shortly after he listens to music, he “comes to life, eyes wide open, talking of how much music means to him,” says Prof. Huckabee.

    The video below shows the miraculous transformation Henry goes through after being affected by his favorite music:


  2. Before King David was a warrior and/or king, he was a poet and musician, specifically a court musician. The Bible tells us that when he played his harp, demons temporary left King Saul. (1 Sam.16:23).

    Personal experience and anecdotal evidence point to music as having a beneficient effect on overcoming temptation. Many people have been inspired to keep going in struggling to overcome temptation at the very time when it was tempting to throw in the towel and give up the good fight.

    Acts 16:16-40 relates the story of Paul and Silas being thrown in jail (unjustly). The natural reaction is to become angry and foam at the mouth in outrage. But what did they do? Instead of behaving like raving lunatics they sang psalms, thus avoiding depression and anger and providing a role model for the jailer in how to act like a Christian under severe stress. Needless to say, the jailer eventually converted to Christianity.

    In Colossians 3:16 we are told to encourage each other with psalms. The type of encouragement that Paul meant here was singing. It is a pity that some places of worship have abandoned congregational singing. Used to be the practice among many Christian sects/denominations to have social gatherings of lay members specifically to sing, to teach each other church songs, instead of frivolous idle gossip.

    Martin Luther (who penned the song “Away in a Manger”) once said that outside of the Word of God, music was the next highest object of our contemplation. The story is told that whilst travelling to the city of Worms in Germany, he was warned of the hatred that the papists would have for him. If my memory is correct, instead of getting anxious and frightened, he composed the famous hymn “A mighty fortress is our God”.


  3. Bryan,
    They might be right about music not affecting people in the same way.
    I directed some missionaries to this blog and they reported the following story about some tribes in Africa:
    – These tribes had never been to the sea, never seen the sea, never even conceived of water bodies big enough to look like a sea.
    – Missionaries sang a song called “Master the Tempest is Raging” which alludes to an incident where Christ calmed a storm.
    – The difficulties that the missionaries had was that they had to explain the concepts behind the words in the same way that that one has to explain the punch line to a joke.


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