Vocal emotion perceptions on infant-directed singing

Photo: janeb13, Pixabay

Kaisa Perko works as a postdoctoral researcher in work and organizational psychology at the University of Tampere and is interested in research on emotions and interaction in all areas of life. She defended her doctoral thesis on leadership and employee well-being in 2017.

Human voice shows a wide range of emotional qualities that other individuals can decode. These vocal capabilities are utilized by artists and actors, as well as by all of us in everyday life, as we sing and talk and listen other people talking and singing. When hearing the voice of a familiar person, we immediately know something about the person’s emotional state without the person describing it in any word.

As have been done maybe for thousands of years, many people help their child to sleep by singing a soothing lullaby that invites the sleep to take over. In scientific studies, infant-directed singing is suggested to aid the child’s emotional regulation and support the developing relationship between the caregiver and the child. It should be acknowledged, though, that there is some unclarity about the additional value of singing as compared to happy-sounding talk or seeing happy faces. In any case, infants are interested to follow emotionally engaging presentations.

In recent years, the soothing and healing effects of music and parental singing have been investigated also in rather clinical environment, among hospitalized newborns in intensive care units. In this environment, building a safe relationship between the parents and the newborn deserves special attention. The results have been at least encouraging as physiological indicators showed that maternal singing indeed helped to stabilize the neonatal condition.

If the parents themselves suffer from difficult circumstances that disturb their emotional life, does this affect emotional features in their vocal presentations to the child? As a psychology researcher interested in emotions, I have had an opportunity to examine this question in Raija-Leena Punamäki’s research project on war-afflicted families and their newborns in the Gaza Strip area. In connection to other data gathering, women in the Gaza Strip were asked to sing to a lullaby or a children’s song to their infant. The women had been pregnant during the 2014 war in Gaza and at the time of singing their infants were 6-7 months old. Additionally, the mothers filled in psychological questionnaires on post-traumatic stress symptoms and postnal depression.

We were interested in the emotional messages in the singing voice of these women. This emotional reading task was performed with the help of a group of unfamiliar adults with the same cultural background as the singing mothers, and additionally a group of adults from a different culture. Psychology students from Gaza and from Finland listened to the short (30 s) song excerpts of the mothers, and gave their ratings on the extent to which the voice expressed fear, joy, sadness, anger, tension, playfulness, and love (tenderness). Specifically, we examined the extent to which emotions in the singing voice, as perceived by the student raters, relate to mental health of the mothers.

Although this endeavour was rather explorative, we were surprised by the results. The students’ ratings of vocal emotions were indeed related to maternal mental health, and even seemed to prospectively predict maternal psychological symptoms one year later. Interestingly, concerning the Finnish students’ emotion perceptions, particularly anger and tension were associated with maternal depression, and sadness with post-traumatic stress symptoms. In contrast, concerning Gazean students’ ratings, the strongest relationships to maternal symptoms were found with a lack of joy and a lack of love. Thus, the students from the same culture as the singing mothers seemed to be more sensitive to the lack of positive emotions, while the students from the different culture were best able to recognize negative emotions.

The results can be understood in the light of the meta-analytic findings demonstrating that in cross-cultural vocal emotion perceptions, there is an advantage for the perceivers that come from the same culture as the presenters of the vocal material. Whereas vocally expressed negative emotions, such as anger and sadness, are well-recognized across cultures, it seems that perceiving vocal happiness is more difficult for members of a different culture than the presenters. Interestingly, facial happiness is particularly well-recognized across cultures, so there seems to be differences in the facial and vocal cross-cultural emotion recognition.

In a recent article authored by Michael Kraus in the American Psychologist I found a concept of empathic accuracy, defined as the ability to judge the emotions, thoughts and feelings of other individuals. The results from a series of five studies suggest that voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy. In other words, people might be better able to recognize emotions of another individual based on the other’s voice as compared to the other’s facial expressions or even a combination of voice and face. Although it is too early to draw firm conclusions on the order of face and voice in emotion recognition, I find it very interesting to explore how people make judgements about others and how empathically accurate their judgements are. In all, the role of voice is an intriguing one especially in our culture that puts a strong emphasis on the visual elements.