Emotion without words

a comparison study of music and speech prosody

Sarah Faber, Anna Fiveash

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Music and language are two human behaviours that are linked through their innateness, universality, and complexity. Recent research has investigated the communicative similarities between music and language and has found syntactic, semantic, and emotional dimensions in both. Emotional communication is thought to be related to the prosody of language and the dynamics of music. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether language’s prosody can successfully communicate a phrase’s emotional intent with the lexical elements of speech removed, and whether the results are comparable with a musical phrase of the same perceived emotion. Eighty-five participants ranked a selection of emotional music and prosodic vocalizations on scales of happy and sad. Results showed consistency and correctness in the emotional rankings; however, there was higher variance and lower intensity in the speech examples across all participants and more consistency in music examples among musicians compared to nonmusicians. This study suggests that speech prosody can communicate a phrase’s emotional content without lexical elements and that the results are comparable, though less intense, than the same emotion conveyed by music. This study has implications for the field of music therapy through support for the accurate identification of emotional information in non-verbal stimuli.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)86-101
Number of pages16
JournalCanadian journal of music therapy
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • music therapy
  • prosody
  • emotion
  • language
  • music
  • semantics
  • dynamics

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