What Can Speech Tell Us About Music And Emotion?

10 Sep

One of the fundamental questions music cognition has attempted to answer is how music can evoke emotion.  Research has found that various intra-musical components (tempo, rhythm, intensity, harmony) contribute to our emotive responses to musical material.  Despite the amount of research dedicated to this phenomena, there has been no absolute agreement on how tonal relationships, that is the harmonic components of music, represent or elicit feelings of happiness and sadness.  Those familiar with basic music theory might recollect how the interval of a major third is often associated with happiness while the interval of a minor third tends to sound sad or somber.

A study by Daniel L. Bowling, Kamraan Gill, Jonathan D. Choi, Joseph Prinz, and Dale Purves, offers an explanation on why these intervals might be linked to the familiar feelings of happiness and sadness.  The study compared major and minor music to the excited and subdued speech of english-speaking individuals.  Previous studies have shown drastic similarities between language and speech (with one major theory claiming that music is a by-product of linguistics).  Drawing upon such research, this team selected several examples of major and minor melodies from a database of western and folk music as the starting point for this study.

Next, native speakers of American English read off single words in both an “excited” and “sad” voice that were recorded for analysis.  Several cleverly crafted monologues of a mock lottery win (excited speech) and the delivery of divorce papers (subdued) were also recorded to mimic the flow of typical speech and conversation.  The music excerpts and english extracts, were analyzed according to their fundamental frequency and frequency ratios.  As the researchers note, the fundamental frequency plays an important role in the perception of speech (distinguishes the sex, age, and emotional state of the speaker) and music (defines the melody, corresponding intervals, and whether the music is in major or minor).

The analysis revealed that the fundamental frequency tended to be higher in excited speech than in subdued speech.  Similarly,  major music also displayed a higher fundamental frequency (through means of determining the implied frequency) than minor music for both the intervals of thirds and sixths.

But why might this correlation be?  As the researchers suggest, when a speaker is excited the tension in their vocal folds increases, thus raising the fundamental frequency of speech.  The opposite holds true for subdue speech; tension decreases and consequently lowers the fundamental frequency of speech.

Additionally the results showed that the excited monologue passages contained more major intervals, while the subdued passages contained more minor intervals.  This might explain why certain intervals are capable of achieving a given emotive effect — if spectra analysis of excited speech resembles that of major music, associations might be formed between the two.  Consequently, the same might occur with subdued speech and minor music.

Bowling, D.L., Gill, K., Chol, J.D., Prinz, J., & Purves, D. (2010).  Major and minor music compared to excited and subdued speech. Journal Of Acoustical Society Of America, 127(1).

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