Cognitive Daily

Do kids recognize emotion in music?

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.


  1. #1 Shannon Martin, MA Clinical Psychology
    September 20, 2005

    Music can be a very good tool in helping Autistic children develop language and improve social comprehension, because musical language resides in a separate place in the brain from spoken language.

    A home or school environment we may think of as relatively quiet, is usually much too stimulating for Autistic children to be able to pay attention in.

    Music is a medium of stimulation Autistic children can tolerate and attend to. Through music, Autistic kids can get the cues ‘normal’ childrent get, but Autistic children miss in the ordinary environment.

    I think Autistic kids have very sensitive hearing, which may also be a factor in determining music ability in general. The music Autistic children are exposed to must be consonant. So don’t sing to them, unless you have perfect pitch.

  2. #2 Andrea La Rose
    September 27, 2005

    The semantics of musical harmony is still largely a cultural phenomenon, an issue of nurture or habit. When I taught elementary school band, I had several bands learning the traditional Jewish/Hebrew song “Hineh Ma Tov” (mainly because it’s a round, which are good for learning to deal with different things happening simultaneously), which is in a minor mode. A Jewish student at one school told me the words basically mean “how great it is that we can all be here together.” When I explained this to a different band, one of the students (previously unfamiliar with the song, and Jewish song in general) asked, “If the words are so happy, why is the music so sad?”

    or another way of putting it: Nobody was born loving Mozart. Nobody was born loving rock’n’roll…

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    September 27, 2005

    “The semantics of musical harmony is still largely a cultural phenomenon, an issue of nurture or habit.”

    It’s always difficult (and often fruitless) to determine whether nature or nurture is responsible for a phenomenon, but I do think there’s some good evidence out there for the nature side of things—for example, the study mentioned above which found preference for the Western musical scale. Steven Pinker has written about how the octave actually mimics sounds found in nature, so it makes sense that we might prefer a Western scale.

    That said, a cross-cultural version of Dalla Bella et al.’s study could be fascinating.

  4. #4 Alex Rose
    September 27, 2005

    Re: Andrea La Rose.

    The example you’ve given only demonstrates a disconnect between the text and the music, not between different musical traditions. It so happens that ˇ°Hineh Ma Tovˇ± IS a sad song, as are nearly all Jewish folk songs, because the Hebrew mode bears a strong resemblance to the Western minor scale. So the fact that the child (quite astutely) asked “If the words are so happy, why is the music so sad?ˇ± actually proves the opposite of your point, that despite cultural differences, children are able to correctly identify types of harmony. Which is a way of saying that some elements of “musical semantics” may be universal, much like grammar (Chomsky) and color perception & proportion (Zeki).

  5. #5 Kev
    September 29, 2005

    Autistic *people* (not just kids) can have a wide range of sensory issues as comorbidities of autism. Irlen Syndrome for example.

    My daughter is very sensitive to noise and finds processing excess noise (traffic, the school cafateria) very challenging but music has always been something she loves. She has a wide range of music DVD’s which are in semi-constant rotation at home.

    I’d also say its fine to sing to your autistic kids no matter how good your pitch is – its about more than pitch: singing alternate lines from a song my daughter knows well back to her has really built up her response and expectation mechanisms.

  6. #6 Bud Parr
    October 3, 2005

    Hi Dave – this is very interesting. A friend of mine, who happens to be a composer (of classical music and classical music for kids), told me to only play major key music for my kid – advice that I took to heart, but it is interesting to see some validation of kid’s sensitivity.

    I don’t know if it’s because my wife and I are music lovers, but our 22 month old has always been attuned to music. When he was an infant he would stop whatever he was doing when I played Mozart piano sonatas – he was mesmerized. it was amazing to see. He doesn’t do that now, but it has manifested itself in many other ways.

    Perhaps this is part of the reason that serious classical musicians generally begin their “careers” at the age of five or so. As a matter of fact, one cellist I know didn’t start playing until ten and most of her peers are astonished by that fact.

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