Music is a universal language which evokes 13 key emotions among listeners, study

About 2,000 people rated nearly 40 music samples based on 28 categories of emotion, scale of positivity/negativity and arousal.


Ed Sheeran's "The Shape of You" sparks joy, Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" energises listeners, and the lines "ooh la la!" in George Michael's "Careless Whispers," triggers seductive power, according to a new study of how people in the US and China respond to different genres of music.

The researchers from the University of California (UC), Berkeley in the US, said music is a universal language which evokes 13 key emotions among listeners.

Their study, to be published in the journal PNAS this week, surveyed more than 2,500 people in the US and China about their emotional responses to thousands of songs from genres like rock, folk, jazz, classical, and heavy metal.

 Music is a universal language which evokes 13 key emotions among listeners, study

Music can generate 13 different types of emotions among listeners.

Based on their analysis, the scientists said the subjective experience of music across cultures can be mapped within at least 13 overarching feelings — amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and feeling pumped up.

"Imagine organizing a massively eclectic music library by emotion and capturing the combination of feelings associated with each track. That's essentially what our study has done," said study lead author Alan Cowen, a post-doctoral candidate who studies neuroscience at UC Berkeley.

The scientists said they have rigorously documented the largest array of emotions that are universally felt through the language of music.

As part of the study, Cowen translated the survey data into an interactive audio map.

In this map, the researchers said, visitors can move their cursors to listen to any of thousands of music snippets, and find out if their emotional reactions match how people from other cultures responded to the music.

According to the scientists, the new map, as well as the study's findings, may help psychological and psychiatric therapies designed to evoke certain feelings.

Music streaming services like Spotify may also apply the study's results to adjust their algorithms for satisfying their customers' audio cravings, the researchers said.

Another insight gleaned from the study is that participants from both the US and China identified similar emotions — such as feeling fear on hearing the "Jaws" movie score.

However, they differed on whether the emotions made them feel good or bad, the study noted.

"People from different cultures can agree that a song is angry, but can differ on whether that feeling is positive or negative," said Cowen.

Positive and negative values, termed as "valence" in psychology, are more culture-specific, he added.

Across cultures, the researchers said, study participants mostly agreed on general emotional characterisations of music, such as angry, joyful, and annoying.

But their opinions varied on the level of "arousal," to the music, such as the degree of calmness, or stimulation evoked by a piece of music.

For the study, more than 2,500 volunteers listened to thousands of music videos on YouTube, which evoke a variety of emotions.

The researchers built a collection of audio clips based on these videos to use in their experiments.

About 2,000 study participants in the US and China each rated nearly 40 music samples based on 28 different categories of emotion, also on a scale of positivity and negativity, and for levels of arousal.

Analysing these inputs with statistical tools, the scientists arrived at 13 overall categories of experience that were preserved across cultures.

They found that the experiences corresponded to specific feelings, such as being "depressing" or "dreamy."

To further validate the findings, the scientists asked nearly 1,000 people from the US and China to rate over 300 additional Western and traditional Chinese music samples that were specifically intended to evoke variations in valence and arousal.

The responses from this second experiment strengthened the previous finding of 13 categories.

The Clash's "Rock the Casbah" pumped up the participants.

Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" evoked sensuality, and the song "Somewhere over the Rainbow" by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole elicited joy, according to the study.

As expected by the scientists, heavy metal was widely viewed as defiant, and the shower scene score from the Alfred Hitchcock movie "Psycho" triggered fear.

While the researchers agreed that some of these associations may be based on the context in which the participants had previously heard a certain piece of music, this is less likely with the case of traditional Chinese music, which validated the findings.

"Music is a universal language, but we don't always pay enough attention to what it's saying, and how it's being understood. We wanted to take an important first step toward solving the mystery of how music can evoke so many nuanced emotions," Cowen said.

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