According to Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, our ancient ancestors communicated with music far before they evolved the ability to use speech. Although this idea, known as the proto-music theory, continues to be debated, researchers do acknowledge that there are many similarities between musical pieces and human language. A new study proposes music is not only similar to language, but was actually modeled after it.

Has a piece of music ever moved you to tears or caused you to smile? One does not need to have any musical training to respond emotionally to music, suggesting this response is an innate part of human nature. Although it’s clear that music has the ability to trigger deep and powerful emotions in listeners, scientists are still unclear as to how this connection is achieved using nothing more than a set of sounds.

Recently, in an attempt to better understand this feat, researchers from McMaster University in Canada analyzed some of the most beloved pieces from the renowned European composers, Frederic Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach.

The researchers analyzed 48 pieces by Bach and 24 by Chopin, and found that the composers appeared to repetitively borrow cues used to express emotion in speech to convey emotion in their music. For example, in human speech, we tend to speak in a higher pitch with faster timing when happy and in a lower pitch with slower timing when sad. These same patterns were observed in the musical scores, with “happy” pieces being generally higher and faster than “sad” pieces.   

“What we found was, I believe, new evidence that individual composers tend to use cues in their music paralleling the use of these cues in emotional speech,” Michael Schutz, a researcher involved in the study explained in a recent statement.

Past studies on the similarities between music and language have shown that when musicians play music, their brains show activity in places that normally light up with spoken language. Linguists have also pointed out that the sing-sing speech that we use to speak to young children, commonly referred to as “motherese” relies on musical features to communicate basic emotions.

Although these speech cues were found in the musical pieces of classical musicians, Schulz believes that the same patterns continue to exist in modern pop music, and  will continue to do so for many years to come.

Source: Poon M, Schutz M. Cueing musical emotions: An empirical analysis of 24-piece sets by Bach and Chopin documents parallels with emotional speech. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015.