There is no doubt that music can influence our emotions; some songs can make us feel happy, while others can bring a tear to our eyes. And according to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, some of the ways in which music affects us are the same worldwide, regardless of cultural diversities.

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Although some reactions to music are influenced by a person’s culture, researchers found some responses are universal.

The research was conducted by investigators from McGill University and the University of Montreal – both in Canada – and the Technische Universität Berlin in Germany.

To reach their findings, the team compared the reactions to 19 short musical extracts between 40 Canadians who live in Montreal and 40 Mbenzélé Pygmies who live in the Congo rainforest.

The researchers note that, compared with Canadians, the Mbenzélé Pygmies live a significantly different way of life; they have no access to electricity, television or radio and are extremely isolated.

Of the musical extracts, which lasted for around 30-90 seconds, 11 were Western and included orchestral music from three well-known movies: Star Wars, Psycho and Schindler’s List. The remaining eight extracts were Pygmy, which consisted of primarily upbeat vocal pieces that are normally performed during ceremonies – to provide comfort following a death, for example.

Because Mbenzélé Pygmies are accustomed to singing during ceremonies, the team recruited Canadians who were amateur or professional musicians to make the comparison between the two groups fairer.

After listening to each extract, the study participants were required to identify how the piece of music made them feel by selecting from a range of emoticons that represented different emotions, including happiness, sadness, anxiety, excitement, calmness and anger.

In order to gain a better idea of how each piece of music affected the participants, the researchers measured their heart rate, respiration rate and the amount of sweat on their palms as they listened.

According to study author Hauke Egermann, of the Technische Universität Berlin, the team found there were significant similarities in how listeners in each group reacted to each piece of music.

“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,” Egermann explains.

He hypothesizes that this is likely to be down to the tempo, pitch or timbre (tone or quality) of the music, but notes that further research is warranted.

When looking at the differences in reactions to the musical extracts between the two groups, the researchers found that the Canadians reported experiencing a wider range of emotions upon listening to Western music, compared with when Pygmies listened to Western music and their own music.

In general, Pygmies reported feeling more positive emotions, regardless of the style of music they listened to.

According to study author Nathalie Fernando, of the Faculty of Music at the University of Montreal, this particular finding may be to do with the different roles that music plays in each culture.

“Negative emotions are felt to disturb the harmony of the forest in Pygmy culture and are therefore dangerous,” she explains.

“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, so it is not really surprising that the Mbenzélé feel that all the music they hear makes them feel good.”

Based on their findings, the team believes while culture can influence an individual’s reactions to music, some responses are universal. Study author Stephen McAdams, of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, says:

People have been trying to figure out for quite a while whether the way that we react to music is based on the culture that we come from or on some universal features of the music itself. Now we know that it is actually a bit of both.”

In August 2014, Medical News Today reported on a study published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science, which suggested music can make us feel powerful, particularly if it has high bass levels.