Children across cultures respond emotionally to the acoustic environment

Weiyi Ma*, Peng Zhou, Xinya Liang, William Forde Thompson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Among human and non-human animals, the ability to respond rapidly to biologically significant events in the environment is essential for survival and development. Research has confirmed that human adult listeners respond emotionally to environmental sounds by relying on the same acoustic cues that signal emotionality in speech prosody and music. However, it is unknown whether young children also respond emotionally to environmental sounds. Here, we report that changes in pitch, rate (i.e. playback speed), and intensity (i.e. amplitude) of environmental sounds trigger emotional responses in 3- to 6-year-old American and Chinese children, including four sound types: sounds of human actions, animal calls, machinery, and natural phenomena such as wind and waves. Children’s responses did not differ across the four types of sounds used but developed with age–a finding observed in both American and Chinese children. Thus, the ability to respond emotionally to non-linguistic, non-music environmental sounds is evident at three years of age–an age when the ability to decode emotional prosody in language and music emerges. We argue that general mechanisms that support emotional prosody decoding are engaged by all sounds, as reflected in emotional responses to non-linguistic acoustic input such as music and environmental sounds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1144-1152
Number of pages9
JournalCognition and Emotion
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2023


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