Music can be used to convey a range of emotion, from sadness to happiness, from anger to fear. We use music to help fall asleep at night, and to wake up in the morning. Its effect on our mood may be enough to improve our performance on a range of intellectual tasks. But where do these effects come from? Are we born with an association between music and emotion, or does it develop as we grow older?
Studies have found some evidence for an appreciation of music even in infants. Babies as young as 9 months old prefer musical scales to monotonic scales—the notes in the western musical scale do not progress in even increments, and babies seem to “know” this. So we do appear to have some innate ability to appreciate music, but how sophisticated is that ability? Do small children and even babies experience the same emotions as adults when listening to music?
A team led by Simone Dalla Bella tested children ranging in age from three to eight, as well as adults, by playing musical excerpts for them and asking whether the music was happy or sad. The participants listened to 32 pieces of classical music, 16 of which were determined to be “happy” and 16 “sad” in a previous study. In addition, the same pieces were systematically altered by changing mode (from major to minor key or vice versa), tempo, or both. Sad music is generally played in a minor key at a slow tempo, and happy music is usually played fast and in a major key. The researchers found that when happy music was slowed down to the same tempo as sad music, it no longer sounded musical; likewise for sad music played as fast as happy music, so they settled on a moderate tempo inbetween the happy and sad tempi (about 84 beats per minute), and adjusted both the happy and sad music to be played at this rate.
As expected, the adults rated the happy and sad music correctly. When the tempo of happy music was slowed, it was rated as sadder. The mode changes had larger effects, and the combined tempo and mode change had the largest effect of all. The children, instead of rating on a numerical scale, pointed to happy or sad faces to indicate the emotion conveyed by the music. Three and four-year-olds were not able to complete the task, rating it no more accurately than random chance. For older children, however, a more complex pattern emerged. Take a close look at this graph charting the results:
Responses were counted as “correct” when the participants rated the music with the same emotion conveyed by the original, unaltered songs. The tempo and mode changes should make the happy music seem sadder and the sad music seem happier. So, for example, if a happy song’s tempo was changed and the listener then rated it as “sad,” this would be graphed as an incorrect response. We can see, for adults, that this is exactly what happened. Fewer adults gave “correct” responses when tempo and mode were changed.
For children, however, we see a split. Six- to eight-year-olds, like adults, respond to both tempo and mode changes. Five-year-olds respond to tempo changes like adults and older children, but for mode changes, their ratings aren’t significantly different from the original, unaltered piece. It appears that five-year-olds determine happiness or sadness solely from tempo and not from mode.
Dalla Bella and her colleagues argue that the ability to understand mode as an expression of emotion is learned between the ages of five and six, but they are less certain about when tempo becomes associated with emotion. It’s possible that the reason three- and four-year-olds were unable to perform the task is related to not understanding the procedure of pointing to happy and sad faces, or to unfamiliarity with the classical music samples. What is certainly clear is that six-year-olds have mastered matching both tempo and mode changes to their corresponding emotions.
Dalla Bella, S., Peretz, I., Rousseau, L., & Gosselin, N. (2001). A developmental study of the affective value of tempo and mode in music. Cognition, 80, B1-B10.