Musical instruments can imitate speech

Singers can convey a lot of emotion in the tone of their voice: a trembling sound can denote sadness, and a voice can also “smile”. But new research shows that non-vocal instruments can also use these tricks to convey emotions.

Described in an article published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, a team of French researchers has identified three different vocal manipulations that convey similar emotions in instrumental music.

The researchers, who are based at Sorbonne University in France, used computer models to simulate three different vocal inflections associated with emotions. These manipulations were:

  1. Smile, which “changes the shape and length of the vocal tract, shifting its resonant frequencies” according to the researchers’ article
  2. Vocal tremor, which is associated with anxiety and negative emotions, and
  3. Vocal roughness, which is associated with screaming

The researchers then digitally applied these inflections to pieces of music containing either solo singing, singing with musical accompaniment, or violin with musical accompaniment.

They played these pieces to 60 people (of whom 29 musicians and 31 had no formal musical practice), and asked them to rate the emotional intensity of each sound.

Both musicians and non-musicians identified the emotions the researchers hoped to convey, both in vocal and non-vocal tracks.

“Even violins can cry, or at least appear more positive and excited when they smile, more negative and less excited when they shake, and more negative when they cry,” the researchers write in their article.

They add that this study adds further evidence to the idea that music can trigger emotional responses by copying expressive inflections in the voice.

However, the researchers also point out that this isn’t necessarily the only way people read feelings in music, saying there are likely other cognitive and cultural factors at play.

“It is now important to understand how these mechanisms interact with each other to shape our emotional musical experiences,” write the authors.

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