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Major melodies might only be considered happier than minor in Western society

Published: 29th June, 2022 at 18:01
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Major chords sound happy, minor ones sound sad, unless you're from Papua New Guinea.

Major harmonies in music are often associated with evoking feelings of happiness and minor harmonies feelings of sadness, but these responses may not actually be universal.

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Funded by the Western Sydney University, a recent study performed by a team of researchers found that this association could be tracked as a belief held by those in Western society, likely due to association or cultural learning.

The researchers compared people’s enjoyment of major and minor music with two groups -- one in Sydney, Australia and a second group from a selection of villages in Papua New Guinea.

While there was a clear preference for music in a major progression for the volunteers from Sydney, this couldn’t be replicated in the second group.

“We were largely open-minded about what the results in Papua New Guinea would be. We did have very strong expectations for the participants being tested in Sydney, based on prior research, so the question really was whether people in PNG would show similar response patterns or not,” said lead researcher Eline Adrianne Smit.

“We expected that the more familiar people are with the major and minor chords and melodies, the more similar their responses would be to participants from Sydney.”

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To test the theory, the team gave participants a set of 30 examples of two different cadences (a progression of two or more chords, usually used to complete a musical phrase or signal the end of a song). They were then asked which of the two provoked a feeling of happiness and to answer questions about their thoughts on the music.

Using the data from this study, the researchers were able to understand enjoyment of music across four factors to do with cadence and melody. In one of these categories, focused just on cadence type, there was no noticeable difference between groups.

However, in the other three factors, the team noticed a much higher correlation between major cadences and happiness in the Australian group. For the group from Papua New Guinea there was no evidence of a favour in either direction.

“The most important finding of the study is that the degree of familiarity with major and minor music plays a large role in people attributing happiness to major and sadness to minor,” said Smit.

“Thus, the higher your familiarity, the more likely you are to behave this way. However, our results cannot exclude the possibility that those without any familiarity with major and minor music may also perceive major as happy and minor as sad.”

However, it isn’t just cultural perception that affects an individuals emotional reaction to music. “From this study as well as some of our other studies, we find that a chords/melodies’ pitch height also contributes to perception of happiness,” says Smit.

While the area of research around major and minor music is detailed, few studies have been carried out outside of regions with Western influence. This makes this a unique insight into the reasoning behind a person's emotional response to sound.

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Authors

Alex is a staff writer at BBC Science Focus. He has worked in technology and science journalism since graduating in 2018 with an interest in consumer tech, robotics, AI and future technology.

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