As music obviously induces various emotional states, one pertinent research question is why some folks enjoy listening to sad music? Well, although sad music seems to really make some listeners sad, emotional states when listening to sad music are oftentimes more complex and may also involve positive emotions such as nostalgia and peacefulness. Furthermore, certain personality characteristics were found to be linked to the enjoyment of sad music, e.g. “openness to experience” and “empathy” (see this study). But if there are individual differences in the enjoyment of sad music, may there also be cultural differences between nations? There definitely are some cultures that are supposed to particularly enjoy sad music (take the Portuguese Fado for example). But do these cultural assumptions of regional musical taste in fact exist?

By retrieving audio feature information from the Spotify API from “top 50 charts” of 25 European countries, I investigated and compared the emotional characteristics of nationwide musical taste in Europe. Spotify provides a set of features that gives information about musical pieces, that may be assessed through the Spotify Web API. One of the musical features (see the full list here) comprises a valence score that indicates the emotional positivity or negativity of the musical piece on a range from zero (very negative) to one (very positive). For data retrieval I used the really helpful spotifyr package. For the map below I used the Highcharter package that provides an easy to use R interface for the Highcharts JavaScript graphics library.

Above you see a map of Europe. For each country the mean valence score is displayed and indicated by the coloring of the country. To make this more interpretable, the scores have been scaled from -10 to 10. Yellow means that the chart music in this country is very positive, blue means it is rather negative. We can already observe that there are quite some differences between the countries. Portugal’s chart music for instance is sadder than Spain’s charts. And, perhaps surprisingly, Turkey’s chart music is also very positive. The Baltic states appear to prefer rather sad music, while the middle European countries are somewhere in between. Let’s look at the five highest and lowest scoring countries:

Top 5 Countries with highest valence:

## # A tibble: 5 x 2
##   Country     valence
##   <chr>         <dbl>
## 1 Spain        10.0  
## 2 Turkey        5.03 
## 3 Netherlands   2.81 
## 4 Denmark       1.18 
## 5 Poland        0.973

Top 5 Countries with lowest valence:

## # A tibble: 5 x 2
##   Country        valence
##   <chr>            <dbl>
## 1 Latvia          -10.0 
## 2 Norway          - 7.77
## 3 Finland         - 7.58
## 4 Estonia         - 7.55
## 5 Czech Republic  - 7.54

Testing some cultural assumptions

Let’s begin with Spain vs. Portugal. A Portuguese might characterize a Spanish person as superior-acting, loud and rude, whereas a Spanish person might think of the Portuguese as taciturn and melancholic. In addition, Portugal has its very own feeling, similar to the German “Weltschmerz” : Saudade. This is what A. F. G. Bell wrote about it:

“The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.”*

Thus, one should have reason to assume that they may also enjoy different kinds of music. Since chart music generally has a great overlap between nations, I excluded all tracks that appeared in both charts and conducted a simple two-sided t-test to compare means of the two groups.

##  Welch Two Sample t-test
## data:  valence by playlist_name
## t = -3.6503, df = 67.239, p-value = 0.000513
## alternative hypothesis: true difference in means is not equal to 0
## 95 percent confidence interval:
##  -0.27121540 -0.07947031
## sample estimates:
## mean in group Portugal    mean in group Spain 
##              0.4605714              0.6359143

It appears that Portuguese chart music is indeed more negative in valence than Spanish chart music. This is suggested by the distributions shown by the violin plot as well as the statistics of the t-test. Let’s take a look at the actual songs. First, I am going to print out songs of the Portuguese chart music with lowest valence scores.

##   valence            track_name  artist_name
## 1   0.184            Salto Alto       Piruka
## 2   0.191 Him & I (with Halsey)       G-Eazy
## 3   0.201               Aleluia Wet Bed Gang
## 4   0.253   N\303\243o Faz Isso       Piruka
## 5   0.271   Tell Me You Love Me  Demi Lovato

Some familiar names but also quite a few Portuguese artists appear here. Having a first listen to it (I assume you’ll be able to copy and paste track and artist name into your preferred music listening app), the songs do indeed appear to be rather sad. Let’s take a look at the Spanish chart music with the highest valence scores next.

##   valence              track_name   artist_name
## 1   0.893              Perro Fiel       Shakira
## 2   0.871                 Mayores       Becky G
## 3   0.860 Una Lady Como T\303\272 Manuel Turizo
## 4   0.844                   Bella       Wolfine
## 5   0.839                Criminal Natti Natasha

Shakira! As expected, the high valence tracks in Spain contain a lot of Spanish. Indeed, the ten highest valence pieces do not contain a single song in another language than Spanish. What strikes me most is that almost all pieces have a pronounced syncopated rhythmic structure that is typical for Latin American music.

Ok. Let’s take a look at some other stereotypes: What about northern vs. southern Europe? One common assumption is that people in northern Europe are less outgoing, maybe sometimes even sadder and definitely more introverted. Is this really the case? First, I had to think about how to divide Europe. A pretty straightforward approach is taking a geographical landmark as demarcation: Every country north of the Alps was assigned to northern Europe and every country south to southern Europe. Bear with me, this may not be the best way to divide it but it is one way of doing it. I applied the same procedure as in the first example and included only music pieces that are unique music pieces.

##  Welch Two Sample t-test
## data:  valence by direction
## t = 0.89494, df = 258.43, p-value = 0.3717
## alternative hypothesis: true difference in means is not equal to 0
## 95 percent confidence interval:
##  -0.02588836  0.06902298
## sample estimates:
## mean in group south mean in group north 
##           0.5406504           0.5190831

Although the distribution indicates a slight trend towards higher valence music in southern and lower valence music in northern Europe these differences are far from being significant. Looking at the map above, this is not surprising. Taken together, while the Portuguese Saudade still reigns the country, there is no difference between north and south in Europe.