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Children’s Association of Tonal Stability and Emotional Valence

Children’s Association of Tonal Stability and Emotional Valence

Presenter Name:Assaf Suberry

School/Affiliation:Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Co-Authors:Zohar Eitan, Tel-Aviv University, Israel


Western music is largely governed by tonality, a system regulating musical continuity and closure. Converging measures have established the psychological reality of tonality as a cognitive schema raising distinct expectancies for both adults and children. However, while tonal expectations were associated with emotion in adults, little is known about tonality’s emotional effects in children. Here we examine whether children associate levels of tonal closure with emotional valence, whether such associations are age-dependent, and how they interact with other musical dimensions. 52 children, aged 7, 11, listened to chord progressions implying closure followed by a probe tone. Probes could realize closure (tonic note), violate it mildly (unstable diatonic note) or extremely (out-of-key note). Three timbres (piano, guitar, woodwinds) and three pitch heights were used for each closure level. Stimuli were described to participants as exchanges between two children (chords, probe); participants chose one of two emojis, suggesting positive/negative emotions, as representing the “2nd child’s” response. Result indicate that the happier emoji was selected more often for the stable diatonic than for unstable diatonic and chromatic tones, t=4.12, p<.001; and the sadder emoji was selected more often for the chromatic tone than for the unstable diatonic and stable diatonic tones, t=-2.211, p=.027. A significant effect of tonal closure was found, with no interactions with age, instrument, or pitch height. Results suggest that tonality affects children’s perception of emotion in music early, robustly and independently of basic musical dimensions.

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