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.
Sets with larger pitch differences between major and minor key pieces had smaller timing differences, and vice versa. This may reflect efforts to balance the cues to avoid sounding trite, Schutz explains.
Schutz and Matthew Poon, a Music alumnus from the Class of 2012, began analyzing a complete body or “corpus” of three 24-piece sets by Chopin and Bach several years ago, as part of an Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) project. Poon is now a graduate student at the University of Toronto.
The pair analyzed all 48 preludes and fugues from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 1); as well as all 24 of Chopin’s Preludes (Op. 28). The pieces were chosen based on their historical significance and enduring popularity amongst performers, educators and audiences.
In order to ensure the tonal areas of each composition stayed in their stated keys, analysis was confined to the first eight complete measures — excluding pick-ups — from each of the 72 pieces.
Previous research on musical emotion has often involved manipulating existing melodies and compositions, Schutz explains. For example, transposing a melody higher or playing a song slower than written, in order to explore changes in emotional responses.
The McMaster-led study built upon that work by exploring how Bach and Chopin used emotional cues in their actual work — music still performed and enjoyed on a regular basis, hundreds of years after it was composed.
Can the same research be applied to modern pop music? Schutz says yes, although it’s much easier to analyze classical music based on the availability of sheet music and detailed notation, he offers.
About this emotion and music research
Source: Andrew Baulcomb – McMaster University Image Credit: The image is credited to Eugène Delacroix and is in the pubic domain Original Research: Full open access research for “Cueing musical emotions: An empirical analysis of 24-piece sets by Bach and Chopin documents parallels with emotional speech” by Matthew Poon and Michael Schutz in Frontiers of Psychology: Cognition. Published online November 2 2015 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01419
Cueing musical emotions: An empirical analysis of 24-piece sets by Bach and Chopin documents parallels with emotional speech
Acoustic cues such as pitch height and timing are effective at communicating emotion in both music and speech. Numerous experiments altering musical passages have shown that higher and faster melodies generally sound “happier” than lower and slower melodies, findings consistent with corpus analyses of emotional speech. However, equivalent corpus analyses of complex time-varying cues in music are less common, due in part to the challenges of assembling an appropriate corpus. Here, we describe a novel, score-based exploration of the use of pitch height and timing in a set of “balanced” major and minor key compositions. Our analysis included all 24 Preludes and 24 Fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (book 1), as well as all 24 of Chopin’s Preludes for piano. These three sets are balanced with respect to both modality (major/minor) and key chroma (“A,” “B,” “C,” etc.). Consistent with predictions derived from speech, we found major-key (nominally “happy”) pieces to be two semitones higher in pitch height and 29% faster than minor-key (nominally “sad”) pieces. This demonstrates that our balanced corpus of major and minor key pieces uses low-level acoustic cues for emotion in a manner consistent with speech. A series of post hoc analyses illustrate interesting trade-offs, with sets featuring greater emphasis on timing distinctions between modalities exhibiting the least pitch distinction, and vice-versa. We discuss these findings in the broader context of speech-music research, as well as recent scholarship exploring the historical evolution of cue use in Western music.
“Cueing musical emotions: An empirical analysis of 24-piece sets by Bach and Chopin documents parallels with emotional speech” by Matthew Poon and Michael Schutz in Frontiers of Psychology: Cognition. Published online November 2 2015 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01419