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The Effect of Pitch on the Creation of Emotional Meaning in Music and Language

Faculty Supervisor:
Dwight Krehbiel
Year of Project Completion:
Aimee Siebert


Music and language are two human media known to communicate emotion. Burgeoning research comparing music and non-verbal language has identified acoustic characteristics, like pitch, that both media share. This study seeks to determine whether pitch functions similarly in music and language to communicate emotion. Participants listen to four actors’ readings of the same Shakespearean monologue and to eight other sound files: a derived prosody file and a transcribed music file for each of the four monologues, for a total of 12 sound files. This produces four sets of three sound files that preserve the pitch movements of the actor’s voice in three types of sound, yielding stimuli that can be directly compared for pitch’s effect on a listener’s perception of emotion in different communication media. Emotion is measured in two response forms: participants’ subjective ratings and physiological recordings. Results show that participants’ ratings of activation and efficiency of emotional communication are preserved across the three communication media, suggesting that pitch differences from the four actors’ readings influence these ratings for music and language. Other findings indicate that speech stimuli generate the strongest emotional ratings of the three media types. Results for activation also corroborate past literature which shows women have stronger responses to emotional communication than men. Discussion covers how the importance of activation in this study may be due to the focus on the emotion of anger in the stimuli to which participants listened.

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.