Why Does Music Move Us So?
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The Kreung culture (like every known human culture, in fact) plays music, but it’s very different from what we’re used to in the West. Here, a middle C sounds the same whether you’re playing a piano in New York or California. There, no such standardization exists. Kreung instruments are different, too. Sievers’s favorite is the mem, a string instrument played sitting down. “One end of the string is between your toes and the other end goes in your mouth,” Sievers says. “You bow the string with a piece of bamboo or a stick, and your mouth becomes a resonating chamber.”
The researchers made several adjustments to the experiment to make it work in L’ak. Most of the villagers couldn’t read or write and none had experience with computers. So the researchers swapped word labels for pictures and used an external controller with real sliders instead of a computer mouse. The team depended on two translators, one to change English into Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, and a second to change Khmer into the Kreung language. Even then it was tricky. The Kreung have no word for &lsquoeaceful’, so the translators opted for ‘sngap chet’, which translates to something like ‘still heart’. Despite the cultural divide, the villagers were warm, welcoming and curious. The experiments were completed in about a month.
Which leads to surprising finding number two, and the crux of the new study: For each emotion, the Kreung chose the same slider positions, more or less, as the Dartmouth college kids had. I didn’t quite believe it until I saw the end products. Here’s a comparison of the typical “angry” song made in New Hampshire and L’ak, respectively:
And of &ldquoeaceful” movies from New Hampshire (left) and L’ak (right):
The study is only the latest of many to ask how our minds make sense of music, and why we love it so. It’s a messy, controversial and absolutely fascinating subject, as fellow Phenomena contributor (whee!) Carl Zimmerwrote about a couple of years ago. Some scientists say music is just a side show, an evolutionary byproduct of our communicative behaviors that didn’t evolve for any specific, adaptive purpose. Harvard psychologistSteven Pinker went so far as to call it “auditory cheesecake,” much to the chagrin of Sievers and Wheatley.
“This idea that music is a frivolous add-on, and is not really serving a purpose, that it’s just a happy coincidence or auditory cheesecake or what have you — it just doesn’t feel right,” Wheatley says. Music is embedded in the rituals of every human culture, she points out, and helps people bond. “There must be something that music is providing for us, that helps us as a social species.”
The new study isn’t going to resolve the debate, but it does point to some intriguing theories. It could be, for instance, that our ancestors first learned to interpret emotion from movement — something that would be useful, say, if you encountered an angry saber-tooth cat. Those same brain systems, finely tuned to detect changes in rhythm and speed, could have also evolved to pick up similar changes in sounds, and later, to intentionally exploit this percep