Man listening to musical waves
Music and sound

Sound and sensation may be universally linked

Maps of bodily sensations when listening to music suggest humans from across cultures respond to specific grooves similarly.

16 May 2023

By Emma Young

Listening to music can trigger goose bumps, send shivers down your spine, or get you on the dancefloor. But does music trigger the same bodily sensations in people from different cultures? 

A new study, currently available as a PsyArXiv preprint, suggests that this may be the case. Vesa Putkinen at the University of Turku, Finland and colleagues also found consistent links between patterns of bodily sensations and specific emotions. They suggest that these physical sensations play a critical role in our emotional responses to music. 

The team ran two studies on a total of almost 2,000 Western (European and North American) and Chinese participants. In the first, participants from both regions rated segments taken from a variety of Western and Chinese songs on 10 different dimensions: happiness, sadness, fear, tenderness, aggressiveness, danceability, energy, relaxation, liking, and irritation. 

In the second experiment, a fresh group of participants from both cultures each listened to a total of 12 of the excerpts (one from each of six categories — happy, sad, scary, tender, aggressive or danceable/groovy, from both regions). As they listened to each excerpt, they illustrated on a blank silhouette of a body the regions that they felt changing in response.

The team found that all the participants tended to feel the same way while listening to the same excerpts. For example, scariness, aggressiveness, and irritation were associated with complex rhythms and an unclear key. Happiness, danceability and energy showed the opposite pattern, while also being associated with a clear beat. “These results indicate that emotions can be communicated through music across diverse cultures because of shared emotional connotations of specific acoustic and structural cues,” the team writes. 

The team also found very consistent patterns of bodily responses to the music. For participants from both cultures, tender and sad songs triggered sensations mainly in the chest area and head. Scary songs also induced sensations in the gut region (especially for the Western participants). Happy and danceable songs caused widespread sensations, particularly in the limbs. Aggressive music led to sensations in different parts of the body, and particularly in the head. 

When the team considered the participants’ emotion ratings alongside the bodily sensation data, they found clear correlations within, as well as between, the Western and the Chinese groups. Their analysis also revealed that specific features of a piece of music — such as tempo and key clarity — were linked to both the body sensations and the music-induced emotions reported by participants from both regions. 

“Our results conclusively show that music induces strong subjective bodily sensations which are correlated with music-induced emotion experience,” the team notes. They suggest that this may be a human universal, and that their findings fit with the popular idea that interoception — the perception of inner, bodily signals, including heart rate and breathing rate — has an important role in our emotions. It’s possible that the perception of these signals could play a critical role in triggering specific emotions in response to different pieces of music. “The elevated activation of the chest area for the sad, tender and scary songs may reflect subjective perception of changes in heart rate and respiration.” 

Previous studies looking at brain activation associated with various emotions have found has found less clear patterns of activation for music-induced emotions versus emotional reactions to phenomena that potentially affect survival. In this study, the sensation maps associated with sad music, for example, were less clear than sensation maps produced in other studies in response to different stimuli shown to elicit sadness. Indeed, the team reports, there was a significant overlap in their results between body maps for the sad and tender songs. The team posits that “this was probably because they both induced a low-arousal positive emotional state in line with the well-known ‘paradox’ of pleasurable sadness in music.” 

The excerpts used in this study were taken mostly from popular songs, and the participants came from just two main regions. Future research in the area might consider other types of music, and people from different cultures. Overall, these results hint that our emotional responses to music transcend cultural boundaries, perhaps due to universally shared emotional connotations of specific musical cues.

Read the pre-print in full