Why music makes us all verklempt (or angry, or wistful, or ...)

It could just be cultural connections that make us identify one song as happy and another as sad. But, explains Joe Hanson, there's evidence that our emotional connections to music are more universal than that.

In this video about evolution, music, and smooshy feelings, Hanson describes a study that asked participants to create short lines of music that matched specific emotions. The results were surprisingly similar, whether the participants were Americans, or people from an isolated village in Cambodia.


  1. We don’t even perceive sound the same way, and we don’t all perceive sound at all, how could we all respond to music the same way?

    1. It’s the same way with other senses too. At least one of the linked videos is full of flashing images which are problems for many people. In the same way, high-pitched sounds can be problems for some people, including me.

  2. I wonder if this is similar to the Bouba/Kiki effect where subjects are shown two shapes, one sharp and jagged and one rounded, and asked which one’s name is Bouba which one is Kiki.  Independent of culture, most people assign Bouba to the rounded shape and Kiki to the jagged shape. 


    1. Somewhat undermined by the fact that ‘kiki’ is Tagalog slang for female genitalia.

  3.  Too bad that  Joe doesn’t know anything about Manfred Clynes, who has been researching these concepts for perhaps 30 years, published books and more impressively a software application Superconductor that humanizes midi or sheet music entry scores by adjusting the volume, timing and articulation to maximize the transfer of emotion.  Actually I found the original referenced paper – the authors don’t cite Clynes in their main references, but in a separate citation in “supporting material”.  Some reviewer probably demanded that they address his work, so they cited portions of it related to cross cultural understanding and expression of emotion through touch, along with a study purporting to refute Clyne’s findings on cross cultural reading of emotion via touch.  But while related, this “sentics” business is really a small part of Clyne’s work in music and emotion.  There is a lecture (maddeningly chopped into short sections) on youtube; another youtube channel with Superconductor renderings of Beethoven quartets might give you the sense that it’s worth digging into his theories.


  4. And then Joe Hanson suggests it /could/ be that you should listen to this other guy who argues it just isn’t so simple. In other words, reductive evolutionary biology explanation dislike.

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