The catchy Korean pop song "Gangnam Style" broke records in the summer of 2012 when so many people watched the song on YouTube that, for the first time ever, the site had to upgrade its viewing capacity. The song became popular throughout the world despite being sung entirely in Korean, a language most are unfamiliar with outside of Asia. A recent study, however, may have provided a bit of insight into why the regional song gained international success. The study found that music was able to transcend all cultural and lingual barriers and elicit the same emotions in individuals, regardless of their background.

What do hipsters living in Montreal and tribesmen in the Congo have in common? Apparently, their taste for music. Researchers from both Canada and Germany travelled deep into the African bush to play Western music to a tribe of Pygmy. The 11 musical clips were around 20 to 90 seconds long in length. Back in North America, the researchers then played eight Pygmy songs to Canadian “hipsters.” Both the Canadians and Pygmies were chosen for the study based on either their amateur or professional musical abilities.

For the African listeners, researchers chose songs from popular Western films such as Star Wars and Schindler’s List that induced an array of emotions, from calmness to sadness. What they chose for the Canadians, on the other hand, was music Pygmies associated with emotional cultural events, such as funeral ceremony songs and childhood lullabies.

To overcome the language barrier, volunteers chose an emoticon that most closely communicated the feelings the music elicited in them. Researchers also recorded various body measurements such as heart rate and breathing. In the end, results showed that both groups experienced similar responses to the music, both in the emoticons they chose and the way their bodies reacted.

"This is probably due to certain low-level aspects of music such as tempo (or beat), pitch (how high or low the music is on the scale), and timbre (tone color or quality), but this will need further research," said Dr. Hauke Egermann, a researcher who took part in the study, in a press release. The only significant difference was that the Canadians described a much wider array of emotions, but the study authors wrote this difference is probably caused by the varying role that music plays in both cultures.

"First of all, the results of this study help to understand in general ... why music is emotional for us," Egermann said in an email to Medical Daily. "Thus this research we will be able to understand the different factors and mechanisms that are at play when music impacts on us. Secondly, these findings could, of course, also be used whenever music is used in a functional way for communication, therapy, marketing, etc.'

Source: Egermann H, Fernando N, Chuen L, McAdams S. Music induces universal emotion-related psychophysiological responses: comparing Canadian listeners to Congolese Pygmies. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015.