University of Cambridge > > Social Psychology Seminar Series (SPSS) > How musical is Homo Sapiens? Investigating perceptual and emotional components of musicality

How musical is Homo Sapiens? Investigating perceptual and emotional components of musicality

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Homo sapiens is musical. Archeological discoveries, cross-cultural work and infant studies suggest that musicality is no less primordial than the capacity for language in humans. One of the reasons for music’s pervasiveness lies in the emotional rewards that music offers to its listeners. But what makes these rewards so special? In the first part of my talk I will present some of our answers to this question. In a nutshell, we found that a 9-factorial model best accounts for musical emotions. This model has been polarizing the field since its inception. The reason is that it posits an array of emotions, such as tenderness, wonder, or nostalgia, that sit uncomfortably with prevalent theories of emotion, especially basic emotions theory.

While the general ability to process and enjoy music is extremely pervasive, probably universal, there are also large individual differences in musical ability, including in the extent to which music appeals to humans. The second part of my talk will be devoted to this issue. Specifically, the study of individual differences in musicality has been rather fragmentary, with bits and pieces originating in various traditions of research, most notably music education and music cognition. As important as these efforts have been, they have failed to materialize in a comprehensive and standardized measure of musical capacity. For various reasons, the development of such a measure is anything but easy. However, in a period when researchers are increasingly interested in relating musical capacities to non-musical traits, ranging from empathy to dyslexia, such a measure becomes indispensable.

My collaborators and I have been working on developing just such a measure. The measure is based on different types of data, test data, self-report, and some psychophysiological data. A distinctive aspect of the measure is that it not only captures aspects of music processing such as melodic or tempo discrimination, but also emotive-motivational components of musicality. To account for individual differences in both components I have coined the term music-mindedness. My hope is that, once the measures of music-mindedness are fully validated, it should be possible to relate individual differences in musicality to extra-musical traits, such as linguistic ability, cognitive functioning and personality more effectively than is currently the case.


Zentner, M. & Eerola, T. (2010). Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy. PNAS , 107, 5768-5773.

Zentner, M., Grandjean, D., & Scherer, K.R. (2008). Emotions evoked by the sound of music: Characterization, classification, and measurement. Emotion, 8, 494-521.

Zentner, M.R. & Kagan, J. (1996). Perception of music by infants. Nature, 383, 29.

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