Young woman with headphones listening to music with colorful music notes and paint in background.

Music Evokes Strong Emotional Reactions Regardless of Culture – Study

Music has long been known to stir emotions and provoke physical responses like nodding heads and tapping feet. It’s even common to see infants bopping along to the beat. A recent study conducted by the Turku PET Centre in Finland shows these effects on emotions and the bodily sensations that go with them are highly consistent across cultures. The results suggest a biological component in music-induced bodily sensations.

Academy Research Fellow Vesa Putkinen, one of the study's authors, explained, “Music that evoked different emotions, such as happiness, sadness, or fear, caused different bodily sensations in our study. For example, happy and danceable music was felt in the arms and legs, while tender and sad music was felt in the chest area.”

Participants Recorded Sensations While Listening to Music

The study involved 1,500 Western and Asian participants who were presented with music clips and a blank silhouette of the human body. They listened to the music and colored in the regions of the body where they felt activity change while listening. The music clips came from 72 excerpts of songs, 36 Western (United Kingdom and the United States) and 36 East Asian (Chinese). The songs were from six different categories: happy, sad, scary, tender, aggressive, and danceable/groovy.

Body Maps of Emotional Sensations

Body maps with orange and red coloring on human bodies showing where people feel music and emotions in their bodies.
Image Credit: Lauri Nummenmaa, University of Turku

This illustration shows how emotions are associated with bodily sensations for both Western and East Asian participants. Researchers averaged the results for Western and Asian songs together. People listening to tender and sad songs mainly felt sensations in their chest and head. Scary songs made participants feel sensations in their stomach area. Happy and danceable songs led to sensations all over the body, especially in the limbs. Aggressive music created strong bodily sensations, primarily in the head but also across the body.

Music Transcends Cultural Boundaries

The study's findings demonstrated that these emotional and physical responses to music were remarkably similar among both Western and Asian listeners. This suggests that they are not dependent on cultural background or learned behavior. 

Professor Lauri Nummenmaa, another key contributor to the study, said, “Certain acoustic features of music were associated with similar emotions in both Western and Asian listeners. Music with a clear beat was found to be happy and danceable, while dissonance in music was associated with aggressiveness. Since these sensations are similar across different cultures, music-induced emotions are likely independent of culture and learning and based on inherited biological mechanisms.”

Evolutionary Roots in Community

This universal connection between music and the human body may have deeper evolutionary roots. Putkinen added, “Music's influence on the body is universal. People move to music in all cultures, and synchronized postures, movements, and vocalizations are a universal sign of affiliation. Music may have emerged during the evolution of the human species to promote social interaction and a sense of community by synchronizing the bodies and emotions of the listeners.”

The study was conducted in collaboration with Aalto University in Finland and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC) as an online questionnaire survey. It was funded by the Research Council of Finland and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal on January 25, 2024.

This research underscores the power of music as a universal language that can evoke emotions and connect individuals across cultures. It highlights music’s potential for fostering social cohesion and community building.

Author: Alissa Zorn

Title: Trauma-Informed Coach

Expertise: childhood emotional neglect, perfectionism, parenting, journaling, comics, doodling, coaching

Alissa Zorn is the founder of She's a trauma-informed coach and cartoonist passionate about helping people overcome perfectionism and shame to build authentic, joyful lives. Alissa has been featured on the Good Men Project, Wealth of Geeks, Motherly, and more.