Music has long been described, anecdotally, as a universal language.
This may not be entirely true, but we’re one step closer to understanding why humans are so deeply affected by certain melodies and modes.
A team of McMaster researchers has discovered that renowned European composers Frédéric Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach used everyday speech “cues” to convey emotion in some of their most famous compositions. Their findings were recently published in Frontiers of Psychology: Cognition.
Their research stemmed from an interest in human speech perception — the notion that “happy speech” for humans tends to be higher in pitch and faster in timing, while “sad speech” is lower and slower.
These same patterns are reflected in the delicate nuances of Chopin and Bach’s music, the McMaster team found.
To borrow from Canadian singer-songwriter Feist, we “feel it all” because the music features a very familiar cadence or rhythmic flow. It’s speaking to us in a language we understand.
“If you ask people why they listen to music, more often than not, they’ll talk about a strong emotional connection,” says Michael Schutz, director of McMaster’s MAPLE (Music, Acoustics, Perception & LEarning) Lab, and an associate professor of music cognition and percussion.
“What we found was, I believe, new evidence that individual composers tend to use cues in their music paralleling the use of these cues in emotional speech.” For example, major key or “happy” pieces are higher and faster than minor key or “sad” pieces.
The team also discovered that Bach and Chopin appear to “trade-off” their use of cues within the examined music.
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