What kind of music gets your feet tapping? A Finnish study found that people from different cultures reported the same bodily sensations when listening to the same songs.
You know when a really good song gives you goosebumps? Or when you can’t stop your feet from tapping to a killer beat? What about music-induced head bobs and shoulder shimmies?
Movement and emotions are inextricably linked to music, and music inextricably linked to humans. But if music is the “universal language of mankind,” does that mean we all respond to it the same way?
A new study out of Finland suggests that despite cultural differences, our bodies and minds respond similarly to music that’s considered happy, sad, tender, scary, aggressive or groovy.
“People seem to ‘feel’ music in a similar way across distant locations in the world,” Finnish researcher Vesa Putkinen told Euronews Culture. “So that does suggest there is something universal in how music activates our bodies.”
Putkinen and the team at the Turku PET Centre in Finland compared East Asian and Western participants for their study, choosing two cultures that were geographically opposed, with different musical traditions.
Together with researchers in China, they surveyed around 2,000 people in the UK, US and China on how they felt while listening to music.
Toe-tapping & head-banging
Participants were asked to listen to the same music clips and then colour in a drawing of the human body, indicating which body areas they felt changed over the course of the song.
The “change” was left vague intentionally, Putkinen says, so participants could easily self-report their feelings – they didn’t have to be physically tapping their toes to the music, but if they felt the urge to, that counted.
(If you’d like to try it for yourself, you can participate in the online questionnaire here.)
The results produced what researchers called “Body Sensation Maps (BSM)” that showed how people’s bodily sensations changed as they listened to the same song.
Most striking? Despite coming from distinct cultures that are on opposite sides of the world, most participants in the East and West responded the same way.
“It’s kind of even more striking because we didn’t have any age limit or take into account socio-economic factors in any way,” Putkinen said. “So despite this variety in individual differences across different factors, we found very consistent emotions and body sensations in our responders. It’s very rare to get results as clean as these”
Take a look at a video animation showing how the BSMs changed over the course of different songs:
‘Shake it Off‘ by Taylor Swift, categorised as a “happy song,” got all participants feeling changes in their toes and heads – perhaps contemplating tapping their toes and bobbing their heads.
Western participants also seemed to feel sensations in their chest a bit more than Eastern participants, who instead felt more change in their hands.
For metal band Slayer’s ‘Angel of Death’, which was categorised as “aggressive,” both Western and Eastern participants’ feelings were concentrated in the head area – giving credence to the headbangers of the world. In the East, sensations were also felt in the feet and hands.
Some differences did appear – Western participants had more of a “gut feeling” when listening to scary songs than Eastern participants did. Tender and sad songs seemed to hit Westerners more in the chest than their Eastern counterparts.
Music’s relationship to human emotions and movement
Research has already shown that humans will universally nod their heads and tap their feet to music, an almost reflexive response that starts to emerge while they’re still infants.
And even if people aren’t physically moving, exposure to music can activate sensory-motor regions in the brain, meaning the brain is contemplating movement.
But emotions brought up by music seem to function differently (and sometimes paradoxically) from emotions in other, real-life situations.
“In evolutionary psychology, we believe that emotions have evolved because they help us to deal with real life challenges,” Putkinen said.
He gave fear as a common example, saying this emotion helps us know when it’s time to run away from a potential threat.
“But music itself is kind of different because it doesn’t have any obvious, real-life consequences,” Putkinen continued. “This raises the question of whether music relies on the same brain mechanisms or bodily mechanisms as these other emotions.”
Some of the participants in the study were also asked to describe their emotions while listening to songs – sad and tender songs were rated highly relaxing but low-energy, which might explain why listening to sad songs can sometimes paradoxically make us feel good.
“Sadness in music is an interesting thing because it’s kind of different from real-life sadness,” Putkinen said. “We do feel sad, but we don’t avoid music-induced sadness in a similar way as we try to avoid being actually miserable in our everyday lives. So even in the context of music and art, these nominally-negative emotions can be felt as positive.”
A neuroscientist, Putkinen says he’d like to expand the research to see what’s actually happening to people’s brain activity when they’re listening to different genres of music, and start to understand how music-induced emotions operate in the brain.
The Turku PET Centre is working on new research that analyses brain scans of people as they lie still while listening to music, and has a new survey studying the link between music and human emotions.