Contesting the idea of music being the universal language of emotions: Evidence from a cross-cultural experiment

The notion that music is not only the art of sound but also something like a universal “language” of emotions is widely held in both popular opinion and scientific research until today. This notion can be traced back into the 18th century and to philosophical theories about the origin of language and music (Rousseau, Herder, and Forkel, among others). From a Eurocentric point of view, it seems to have had a quasi-natural plausibility; remarkabaly, it figured in the first studies conducted in the late 19th century in the then emerging field of music psychology –with only Western participants, however. Since the 1990s, a number of studies has been published that adopted a cross-cultural approach. The majority of these studies fails to satisfy criteria of musicology or ethnomusicology, though. For instance, ethnic groups are asked to rate the emotional expressiveness of a number of musical excerpts without checking whether they converge on the set of “basic” emotions that is mostly tested, and whether their musical culture involves the idea of music being expressive of emotions at all. Furthermore, the experimental paradigm of identifying discrete emotional catagories in multiple-choice tasks offering only a very small number of options has met criticism. 

In order to bring ideas of temporal and regional differences in music aesthetics and emotional expressivity into cross-cultural studies on music perception, we joined forces with two ethnomusicologists. We then designed a study that tried to combine high empirical standards with (ethno)musicological sensitivities. Four musical repertoires were selected (European classical music, Ghanaian traditional and popular music, Hindustani classical music, global pop as a control condition) and played to participants in Germany, Ghana, and India (N = 471) (Fig. 1). They had to rate their sense of perceived emotional expression either with a XY-items list of nuanced emotion terms or on Likert scales of arousal and valence dimensions. In addition, their musical expertise was assessed, as well as their general notion of musical expressiveness.


As hypothesized, large effects of inter-group differences emerged. In general, the “correct” emotional expression of the pieces (as intended by composers/performers) was not very well recognized when people had to pick from verbal emotion categories (fig. 2). In the dimensional arousal-valence-condition, convergence between individuals and groups was stronger, at least for perceived arousal. Emotional valence, however, was still very differently perceived between participant groups.

In further analyses, we will seek to determine which musical and non-musical factors play a role in emotion perception for the different participant groups, and provide a more general critique of the empirical and cross-cultural study of emotion perception in music.

External Research Partners

PD Dr. Tobias Robert Klein (Universität Gießen)
Dr. Nicole M. Lehmann (Berlin)