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How culture informs people’s emotional reaction to music – podcast

Men with musical instruments with dancers in colourful clothes behind and mountains in the background.
People in the Kalash valley in Pakistan during the Joshi festival. thsulemani/Shutterstock

The Conversation Weekly podcast is taking a short break this week. In the meantime, we’re bringing you an extended version of one our favourite recent interviews.

In this episode, we speak to a musicologist who’s been finding out how much a person’s cultural background influences their emotional reaction to music – and to certain harmonies.

When George Athanasopoulos and his colleagues decided to investigate whether a person’s emotional response to music and harmony is innate or shaped by culture, they needed to go to a place with a bad internet connection.

“We wanted to see whether the western concepts of music, which are specifically related to a major chord having a happy connotation and a minor chord having a sad connotation, hold any sort of truth outside a western cultural environment,” says Athanasopoulos, a COFUND/Marie Curie junior research fellow at Durham University in the UK.

To do this, Athanasopoulos needed to find people who hadn’t already been overwhelmingly exposed to western music. But he says this is hard in a world where anyone with an internet connection can “download the latest hits by Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande” via music streaming platforms.

So the researchers decided to go to a remote area of northwest Pakistan to spend time with the Kalash and Kho people who live there. “There’s an unstable electricity grid, which means to an effect that there is no stable internet connection unless one is prepared to travel two hours away to the closest town,” explains Athanasopoulos.

The research Athanasopoulos and his colleagues published as a result of their time with the Kalash and Kho people is revealing how music considered “happy” to western listeners isn’t necessarily perceived that way by others. In fact, it can be quite the opposite.

Listen to the full episode to hear more about Athanasopoulos’s findings. You can also read an article he wrote about the research with his colleague Imre Lahdelma.

Read more: How your culture informs the emotions you feel when listening to music

Vocal recordings in this story are from databases by Latif S et al and Burkhardt F et al. Melodies harmonised in a wholetone style, and in the style of a JS Bach chorale, by George Athanasopoulos. Overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Davis High School Symphony Orchestra.

This episode of The Conversation Weekly features an extended version of an interview first published on February 3. It was produced by Mend Mariwany and Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here.

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