In a recent scientific article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers examined how the structural features and emotional connotations of music can evoke sensations in different parts of the body and whether these effects are consistent among people from different cultures. Their findings underscore the subjective nature of music listening while also showing that some associations between music and the emotional and physical reactions it evokes transcend cultural boundaries.
Study: Bodily maps of musical sensations in different cultures. Image source: fizkes / Shutterstock
Certain universal reactions to music occur as early as infancy, including foot-tapping and head-nodding. It is known that music activates brain regions that control sensorimotor responses even without movement and can alter the autonomic nervous system (ANS) by influencing respiration, heart rate, and body temperature. At the same time, it can elicit endocrinological responses such as changes in oxytocin and cortisol levels. The widespread nature of these reactions suggests that music could serve an important but as yet unknown evolutionary function. This hypothesis is supported by the observation that music and dance are central to social life in cultures around the world. While previous research has shown intercultural similarities in non-music-related emotions, the consistency of bodily sensations evoked by music in different cultures has not been examined.
About the study
In this study, researchers examined how acoustic features and emotional characteristics of music evoke different subjective bodily sensations. To determine if these effects were culturally consistent, the study included both Western participants from Western Europe and the United States, as well as East Asian participants from China. The music database included 72 songs, half of which were Western and the other half were Chinese. The songs were categorized as sad, happy, tender, aggressive, tender, and groovy (danceable). Each participant completed 12 trials, in each of which a music clip was played, and they were given an outline of a human body to mark the body parts they felt were stimulated by the music.
The subjective feelings of the East Asian and Western participants towards the music showed strong correlations, suggesting that individuals in both cultures had consistent emotional experiences. The main difference was in familiarity, as Western participants were more familiar with Western songs than with East Asian songs and vice versa. The results of the Bodyly Sensation Maps (BSMs) showed that participants felt the effects of sad or tender songs in the head and chest areas; especially Western participants felt the effects of eerie songs in the abdominal area. The effects of danceable and happy songs were felt throughout the body, but mainly focused on the limbs. Music categorized as aggressive was also felt throughout the body, but especially in the head.
The results suggest that the emotions and bodily sensations evoked by music are consistent across cultures. They also emphasize how music can elicit strong but subjective bodily sensations that are highly associated with the emotional and auditory experience. The authors note that their study is limited by its focus on only two distant (but not isolated) cultures, and therefore cannot capture other culture-dependent variations. Future research could expand on this knowledge by considering multiple cultural groups and examining how their reactions differ along a continuum of distance from each other. Another fundamental limitation is that information about bodily sensations was self-reported – future work in this area could also collect data on physiological changes.