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Music causes similar emotional experiences and sensations in all cultures

Music isn’t just an auditory experience. It’s also a physical one that transcends cultural boundaries, evoking similar feelings and physical sensations for people around the world.

This is the core finding of a groundbreaking study from Finland’s Turku PET Centre, exploring how music emotionally and physically impacts listeners worldwide.

Studying the musical experience

The study, a collaborative effort between Turku PET Centre, Aalto University, and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC), involved an extensive online survey with 1,500 participants from Western and Asian backgrounds.

Participants were asked to rate the emotions and bodily sensations they experienced while listening to a variety of Western and Asian songs.

Emotional and physical responses to music

Academy Research Fellow Vesa Putkinen explains the study’s fascinating findings.

Music that evoked different emotions, like happiness, sadness, or fear, caused distinct bodily sensations. For instance, people generally felt happy and danceable music in their arms and legs, whereas tender and sad music was more often felt in the chest area,” says Putkinen.

This discovery highlights the deep-seated connection between our emotional responses to music and the physical sensations we experience.

Cross-cultural similarities in music experiences

Another key finding of the study is the universality of these musical experiences. Despite cultural differences, Western and Asian listeners reported similar emotional and physical responses to music.

This suggests that music-induced emotions might be rooted in inherited biological mechanisms rather than cultural learning.

Professor Lauri Nummenmaa elaborates on these universal patterns.

“Certain acoustic features of music, like a clear beat or dissonance, were consistently associated with specific emotions across cultures,” Nummenmaa explains.

“For example, a clear beat often led to feelings of happiness and an urge to dance, while dissonance was linked to aggressiveness,” she concluded.

These cross-cultural similarities indicate that our reactions to music are likely ingrained in our biology.

Music’s role in human evolution

The study also delves into the role of music in human evolution. Putkinen suggests that music may have evolved as a tool for social cohesion.

“Music’s influence on the body is universal. Across cultures, people move to music, and synchronized postures, movements, and vocalizations signify affiliation,” Putkinen notes.

“Music likely emerged during human evolution to enhance social interaction and community by synchronizing our bodies and emotions,” he concludes.

Therapeutic uses of music

Music therapy is a dynamic field where healthcare professionals use music to support mental, emotional, physical, and social well-being.

This therapeutic approach harnesses the inherent qualities of music to facilitate healing and personal growth.

Music therapy plays a significant role in cognitive rehabilitation. For patients with conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia, familiar melodies can trigger memory recall, improving cognitive function. Therapists actively use music to help these patients regain lost memories and maintain cognitive abilities.

Musical experiences and mental health

In the realm of mental health, music therapy offers a unique avenue for emotional expression and processing. It is particularly effective for individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

As discussed above, creating or listening to music allows patients to express emotions non-verbally, often leading to significant improvements in mood and mental health.

Music therapy also fosters social skills development. Group sessions encourage communication, collaboration, and emotional sharing, beneficial for those with autism or social anxiety.

Implications and future research

By engaging in music-making or listening experiences together, individuals can build connections and improve their social interactions.

In summary, this comprehensive study sheds light on the universal power of music. It transcends cultural barriers, evoking similar emotions and physical sensations in people from diverse backgrounds.

This finding deepens our understanding of music’s role in human life while emphasizing its potential as a unifying force in an increasingly fragmented world.

The full study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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