Scientists Map The 13 Emotions Sparked By Music, Regardless Of Your Culture


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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Scientists have mapped 13 key emotions triggered when we listen to music. Alan Cowen/UC Berkeley

Music is said to be the “language of the soul,” seemingly capable of expressing what words cannot. But is this “language” really universal? Would you feel the same sensation while listening to your favorite tune by The Clash, for exampleas someone from across the world who's more familiar with traditional Chinese music? 

A new study by the University of California, Berkeley, has delved into the question of how different cultures respond to the same music. Reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their work reveals that music across two cultures can be loosely “mapped” into at least 13 brackets: amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and feeling pumped up.


You can check out an interactive map of these findings right here.

"Imagine organizing a massively eclectic music library by emotion and capturing the combination of feelings associated with each track. That's essentially what our study has done," study lead author Alan Cowen, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in neuroscience, said in a statement.

The team of psychologists from UC Berkeley surveyed over 2,700 people in the US and China about their emotional responses to thousands of songs from a range of different genres, including rock, folk, jazz, experimental, heavy metal, European classical, marching band, and traditional Chinese music. The researchers used statistical analyses to work out 13 broad categories of experience that appeared to be preserved across cultures. 

A larger version of the "map" developed by the research. Alan Cowen/UC Berkeley 

A number of common themes popped up in the people's responses, regardless of their own cultural background: Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” made them feel energized. Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” evoked a sense of sensuality. The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” pumped them up. The shower scene score from the movie “Psycho” scared the hell out of them.  


One limitation of the study is that the researchers only compared two cultures, the US and China. Although these cultures are distinct, they are certainly not isolated and have some overlaps, meaning many of the participants would have had some previous run-ins with the other culture's music. 

As the study authors note in the paper, “different experiences may emerge when studying musical traditions from other regions, such as Africa and South America.” 

"It will be particularly informative to study the semantic space of subjective experience associated with music in small-scale cultures with limited Western contact," they added.

That said, the researchers argue that their study provides a framework that hints at some universal quality to the experience of music. 


"Music is a universal language, but we don't always pay enough attention to what it's saying and how it's being understood," Cowen explained. "We wanted to take an important first step toward solving the mystery of how music can evoke so many nuanced emotions."


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