A cross-cultural investigation of the perception of emotion in music: psychophysical and cultural cues

Laura Lee Balkwill*, William Forde Thompson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

461 Citations (Scopus)


Studies of the link between music and emotion have primarily focused on listeners' sensitivity to emotion in the music of their own culture. This sensitivity may reflect listeners' enculturation to the conventions of their culture's tonal system. However, it may also reflect responses to psychophysical dimensions of sound that are independent of musical experience. A model of listeners' perception of emotion in music is proposed in which emotion in music is communicated through a combination of universal and cultural cues. Listeners may rely on either of these cues, or both, to arrive at an understanding of musically expressed emotion. The current study addressed the hypotheses derived from this model using a cross-cultural approach. The following questions were investigated: Can people identify the intended emotion in music from an unfamiliar tonal system? If they can, is their sensitivity to intended emotions associated with perceived changes in psychophysical dimensions of music? Thirty Western listeners rated the degree of joy, sadness, anger, and peace in 12 Hindustani raga excerpts (field recordings obtained in North India). In accordance with the raga-rasa system, each excerpt was intended to convey one of the four moods or "rasas" that corresponded to the four emotions rated by listeners. Listeners also provided ratings of four psychophysical variables: tempo, rhythmic complexity, melodic complexity, and pitch range. Listeners were sensitive to the intended emotion in ragas when that emotion was joy, sadness, or anger. Judgments of emotion were significantly related to judgments of psychophysical dimensions, and, in some cases, to instrument timbre. The findings suggest that listeners are sensitive to musically expressed emotion in an unfamiliar tonal system, and that this sensitivity is facilitated by psychophysical cues.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-64
Number of pages22
JournalMusic Perception
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Sept 1999
Externally publishedYes


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