Is music the international language?

When working on international Sound Branding projects clients often ask me whether music is international and can be used all over the world. So far to me classical, pop and Hollywood film music can be titled as international music which will be understood nearly all over the world. Nevertheless to be on the safe side on a Sound Branding project which is to be implemented worldwide local market research is the only safe way to go. You can imagine that the budget for such a research project is sky high.

So I am happy for every little piece of information about the recognition of music in an international setting, as academic research is limited. Now we have some more insights regarding this issue. It has long been debated which aspects of music perception are universal and which are developed only after exposure to a specific musical culture.

In a crosscultural study with participants from a native African population (Mafa) and Western participants results show that basic emotions in Western music can be recognized universally (Academic article: “Universal recognition of three basic emotions in music” Current BiologyVolume 19, Issue 7, 573-576, 19 March 2009).

In a first step the international researcher team … investigated the ability to recognize three basic emotions (happy, sad, scared/fearful) expressed in Western music. Results show that the Mafas recognized happy, sad, and scared/fearful Western music excerpts above chance, indicating that the expression of these basic emotions in Western music can be recognized universally.

In a second step the researcher examined how a spectral manipulation of original, naturalistic music affects the perceived pleasantness of music in Western as well as in Mafa listeners. The spectral manipulation modified, among other factors, the sensory dissonance of the music. The data show that both groups preferred original Western music and also original Mafa music over their spectrally manipulated versions. It is likely that the sensory dissonance produced by the spectral manipulation was at least partly responsible for this effect, suggesting that consonance and permanent sensory dissonance universally influence the perceived pleasantness of music.

Overall, the research indicates that basic emotional expressions conveyed by the Western musical excerpts can be universally recognized, similar to the largely universal recognition of human emotional facial expression. That makes our next international Sound Branding project a lot easier: just keep it happy :)


2 responses to “Is music the international language?

  1. Hello Karlheinz,

    thanks for posting this piece of knowledge as research about the intercultural perception of sound is indeed limited. Although it might not be the task of a corporate sound to trigger the basic emotions, this is a start. To conclude from an african population, that the sounds will be regonized globally seems questionable though. The asian culture may hold different cultural patterns (e.g. reactions to low noises in cars). But I agree, that the spread of classical, pop and hollywood music allows for some generic patterns to be adressed.

    An interesting field of research. Let’s hope, we’ll get some more detailled study results soon!

    Best regards,

    C. Stiegler

    • Hi Cornelius,
      thanks for your feedback. For me the interesting part in this study is that these people have not been exposed to western music before. Hence their reaction is not based on education or cultural tradition it is a pure emotional – even unconditioned – reaction. So it’s another little piece of the puzzle to understand the international impact of music.
      Thx again

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