Study shows music can communicate emotions

By Charlie Rafkin

The Dartmouth, Dartmouth College via UWIRE

Humans across cultures can express various emotions through music and motion, according to a recent study by Dartmouth College psychology professor Thalia Wheatley, psychology and brain sciences PhD candidate Beau Sievers and music professor Michael Casey.

The study, titled “Music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expressions of emotion,” was published in the Jan. 2 edition of “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

To gather data, researchers asked participants to design either a melody or animation for specific emotions using a computer program that Sievers designed.

Participants used five slider bars in both portions of the experiment to change musical tones or an animation of a bouncing egg.

After collecting data from 50 Dartmouth students — 25 for each portion of the study — Sievers and Wheatley travelled to the L’Ak village of Cambodia to test 80 more participants.

Because the villagers of L’Ak could not read or use computers, Sievers and Wheatley adjusted parts of their computer program by adding pictorial representations of melodic rates and changing other parameters.

Both Dartmouth students and L’Ak villagers created similar responses in both mediums to the same emotional triggers, suggesting that musical and movement-based responses to these emotions are innate.

The melodies and animations shared several movements, illustrating a close association between music and movement in the human brain, Wheatley said.

The study results suggest that dynamic profiles for music and motion are universaluncovered a “signature for emotion that is expressed both in music and movement,” Wheatley said.

Both Sievers and Wheatley said they were surprised by the strength of the results. Sievers said he expected differences in heritage to affect the created melodies or movements, but the study shows “very little intercession of culture,” he said.

Although Sievers said that the study built upon existing research on emotional responses to music and studies of motion, he emphasized the uniqueness of the “cross-modal” approach to the study.

“I don’t know of any study that has done something quite like this with the music and movement,” he said.

The relationship between music and movement may stem from neuronal recycling, a process in which the brain’s innate capacities are “recycled” for new functions, Sievers said.

“Basic evolutionary systems like needing to track movement in the environment have been re-purposed for different tasks,” he said. “Music is one of those.”

Sievers and Wheatley came up with the idea for the experiment in 2008, after Wheatley gave a guest lecture to Sievers’ graduate seminar on evolution and music.

Music professor Larry Polansky, who taught the class, advised them on the theory behind their research.

Daniel Leopold, who collected data for the study while he was a senior at the College, said Wheatley’s enthusiasm for the topic inspired him to pursue clinical psychology.

“[Wheatley] was really excited about the work and the research, not afraid to tackle things like morality, or expression of emotions or intimacy perception,” Leopold said.

The researchers’ trip to Cambodia in December 2010 was sponsored by grants received from the Rockefeller Center and the Dickey Center for International Understanding.

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