We often think of music as expressing emotions, and research has backed this notion up. But typically the research has focused on melodic instruments: sweet, sorrowful violins; bright, happy guitars; melancholy, wailing oboes. So what about percussion instruments: drums, cymbals, tympani—can they express emotion too?
Listen to the following short music clips. As you listen, try to determine what emotion they are expressing. Think of it as a multiple choice test. You get to choose between solemn, tender, fearful, angry, sad, or happy.
Could you discern a difference? If you scroll down to the end of this post, you’ll see the “answers.” Petri Laukka and Alf Gabrielsson, of Uppsala University tested the idea that drums could express emotion by playing clips of drum performances and asking volunteers to rate them on a scale of 0 to 10 for how they expressed the emotions listed above (“Emotional Expression in Drumming Performance,” Psychology of Music, 2000). The passages were performed by two different professional musicians, who were simply instructed to play their choice from three specified rhythms on an electronic drum set while trying to express each of the emotions.
The graph below presents some of the results of the study. The columns in the graph represent average listener ratings of the music. The dark blue columns indicate responses that are significantly different from the others in the same row.
Listeners could accurately indicate which emotions the drummers were attempting to express, even though the drummers were limited in the instruments and rhythms they could utilize.
So how do drummers express these different emotions? Laukka and Gabrielsson analyzed the musical qualities of the performances for each drummer and emotion, and they found that for each emotion, the drummers chose a similar tempo and sound volume level. For example, to play sad music, both drummers played very quietly, and their tempos were nearly the same (61 and 73 beats per minute). For happy music, both musicians tripled the tempo and increased the sound level. Neither musician deviated much from the initial tempo he or she chose for the music, except in the case of “fearful.”
When you listen to the drumbeat of a musical composition, it often seems that the drums are simply keeping time. In fact, they also help listeners appreciate the emotions the composer and musicians are trying to express. Though how exactly the listeners perceive the same emotion that the musicians attempt to express is still a mystery, it’s amazing to realize that something as simple as a ringing cymbal or beating drum can mean so much.
Here are the answers to the musical quiz above:
Clip 1: Happy
Clip 2: Sad
Clip 3: Angry
Clip 4: Fearful
To generate the sounds, Travis Lloyd used a synthesizer to match the average tempo and volume indicated by Laukka and Gabrielsson in their study. If you’re like most people, your answers should match the results of the study.