This is a transcript of The Conversation Weekly podcast episode: South African scientists on the inside story of discovering omicron – and what their experience can offer the world about future variants, published on February 3, 2022.
NOTE: Transcripts may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Dan Merino: Hello, and welcome to The Conversation Weekly.
Gemma Ware: This week, two South African scientists tell us the story of omicron’s discovery – and what lessons their experience can give the rest of the world about future COVID-19 variants.
Shabir Madhi: We found that over the course of four waves, that you cannot prevent the dissemination of a variant by restricting travel to and from a handful of countries, it doesn’t work.
Jinal Bhiman: Hopefully countries going forward will not stigmatise other countries that are identifying variants of concern.
Dan: And, is the human emotional response to music and harmony innate or shaped by culture? I speak to a researcher who travelled to northwestern Pakistan to help answer that very question.
George Athanasopoulos: The idea that we have in the west that major chords convey happiness, is not necessarily true outside the western cultural sphere.
Gemma: I’m Gemma Ware in London.
Dan: And I’m Dan Merino in San Francisco. You’re listening to The Conversation Weekly: the world explained by experts.
Gemma: We’re joined this week by Ozayr Patel, digital editor for The Conversation in South Africa. Hey Oz!
Dan: Hey, how’s it going, Oz?
Dan: Hey Gemma, hey Dan.
Gemma: Oz, you’re in Johannesburg. Tell us, what’s the COVID situation like where you are right now?
Oz: OK, South Africa is on alert level one. This means most restrictions are eased. There are gatherings allowed; no more than 1,000 people indoors and no more than 2,000 people outdoors. Curfews have been lifted, but people are still required to wear masks in public places and to sanitise frequently.
Dan: And how many daily cases are there?
Oz: So, we’re well over the peak. The end of January had numbers in the two and three thousands and about one in ten tests came back positive.
Dan: And what did case numbers and test positivity look like a few weeks ago during the Omicron surge?
Oz: In the peak around December it reached around 37,000 cases, which is about one in every third person who was testing. And around that time daily cases were regularly in the 20,000s. The numbers are much more manageable now and hospitals aren’t overburdened.
Dan: So it was South African scientists who first alerted the world to omicron, and in this episode you and Gemma have been talking to a couple of them about what those first few weeks were like, and I think about some of the really important lessons their experience can provide the rest of the world.
Oz: Yeah that’s right. So, the first person we talked to was Jinal Bhiman. She’s a Medical Scientist at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, which is the national public health institute.
Gemma: When did you first hear about a new variant of coronavirus?
Jinal Bhiman: So, in the first or second week of November, right? Lancet Laboratories, which is a private testing laboratory here in South Africa contacted the NICD. And they said, listen, guys, we’re seeing something strange. And what they were seeing was this S gene target failure.
So, an S gene target failure is basically where you have the S gene for coronavirus not being detected and usually, when you have a PCR test being done, there are three genes that are tested, right? This gene would be one of them. And we usually see all three genes coming up positive. The exception was with the alpha variant – it was also characterised by this S gene target failure – and in South Africa, we didn’t really see high numbers or high frequencies of the alpha variant circulating.
So when Lancet started seeing that it was really quite a rapid increase in the frequency of this S gene target failure, within two weeks, they were quite concerned. So, Lancet Laboratories, in addition to doing PCR testing, they can also do sequencing. So Lancet agreed to select a couple of these S gene target failures, just eight of them, that were from all different districts within one of our provinces, within the Gauteng province, where we first saw this S gene target failure. They were from different age groups, different areas – geographic areas – within this province. And then they sent the raw results basically to us for analysis.
And so at nine o’clock on Friday the 19th of November, in the evening, our Lancet colleague Raquel, she sent us these raw reads. Nine o’clock in the evening.
Gemma: And what was it like when you first saw those raw results?
Jinal: There’s four of us on this team who kind of routinely look at our sequence data. It’s myself, Catherine, Daniel and Josie. So those results came back and literally every single one of these eight specimens had these crazy number of mutations. And so we hadn’t seen this many mutations, so out first thought was “there’s something wrong, we need to redo the analysis”. It’s kind of like an inherent scientific trait, you always criticise anything you see.
So, Friday night, we reran the analysis overnight. Saturday morning, the analysis came out and it had failed. No result. Already, we were like “ah, there’s something weird, there’s something funky.” So that was Josie, she ran the analysis on Friday night, then Daniel said, no, no, no, let him do it, he’s going to rerun the analysis on Saturday. Sunday morning, the analysis came out, it had failed again.
So, Daniel decided, OK, let’s do, let’s try a completely different pipeline. So on Monday morning we got the result on a different pipeline and this time it had worked. It had worked and it was exactly what we had seen that Friday night. All these mutations were confirmed to be real, and yeah.
Gemma: What did you then do, the four of you, then?
Jinal: So, once we confirmed everything, we wanted to just get a couple more samples, and make sure that it was real. We also wanted to get a couple of more sequences, like, from our own kind of surveillance and diagnostic where we’d seen S gene target failures.
We also then got into contact with the rest of our consortium within the network for genomics surveillance in South Africa. We told them about these mutations. They also, you know, tried to reach out to all the various testing labs that make our consortium work. Then we just tried to bulk up the numbers, just tried to get more and more samples so that we could confirm this was real and this was happening. And obviously the diagnostic labs then got involved and they started analysing their data and started seeing across the board that there was this rapid increase in the S gene target failures. So we took about a week to confirm everything and made sure that, you know, we weren’t kind of jumping to conclusions or anything.
Gemma: And what did you do with the data next?
Jinal: The following week was when we shared the data with our government. We uploaded it to GISAID, the public repository for SARS-CoV-2 genomes.
So basically one of the checks that we do when we see something unusual is we check GISAID. Has anybody else seen this, you know? We were checking every single day. We were not seeing anything. We uploaded our sequences on Monday morning, so literally we submitted our presentation to our minister and said there’s no other sequences on GISAID, these are the only ones. And then a couple hours later when we checked again, you know, there were the sequences from both Botswana and Hong Kong.
Gemma: What happened next?
Jinal: Our government made a formal announcement that Thursday after we informed them. And yes, things exploded from that week on, in terms of travel bans, in terms of scientists trying to do as much as quickly as possible.
So by the second week we had sequenced over 200 samples from across South Africa, all different provinces. I think at that point we had confirmed it in four of our nine provinces. But what was most striking was the diagnostic lab results. So even though we didn’t have sequencing results from every single province, the diagnostic labs were reporting this increase in S gene target failure in every province, and it was rapid and it was drastic. What we also started seeing was that there was an increase in the reinfection risk, regardless of whether the person was vaccinated or not.
And so I think we had an emergency WHO viral evolution working group meeting, I think it was on the Friday after our government announced the variant. And that was when it was declared a variant of concern. And I think rightly so.
Gemma: Tell me personally what it’s been like for you as one of the scientists involved in that first kind of discovery of omicron. There were the travel bans and it was quite a difficult moment for South Africa. What’s happened to you and how have you felt about it?
Jinal: So when we first, you know, obviously found this thing and confirmed it, I felt proud, to be fair. You know, I felt proud that we are doing our job and we’re doing it well and we’re getting this news out. In the very immediate days after our government made this announcement, quite a few of us on the consortium received death threats. And that was really scary. That was really scary because I have a little kid who stays at home alone with a nanny every day. And they basically, you know, they singled some of us out by name and it was, it was scary. Like, that made me question, should I be even doing this kind of thing? But it also made me really upset when all the international travel bans were imposed, because they were irrational, you know? And I think now if you actually go and look at the retrospective data, omicron was across the world.
Gemma: So it must’ve been really scary. Why were people targeting scientists like you? And what’s happened since, has it calmed down?
Jinal: Yeah, thankfully it has calmed down. People were targeting scientists because of the travel bans. You know, South Africa is already in such a precarious economic situation, since the start of this pandemic, it’s impacted our country quite drastically. And so people were angry because there’s now even further economic losses, you know?
And basically they felt that scientists shouldn’t be raising the alarm. Like, this is not benefiting us in any way. And in any case, there’s nothing we can do so why are you telling the whole world about this? That was the reason people were so upset and so angry and I feel them and I completely understand it. It’s just not fun being on the receiving side of that.
Gemma: As omicron cases were reported in more and more countries, labs in South Africa and Sweden were quickly trying to find out how all its mutations would affect our body’s immune response – what’s called neutralisation resistance. They wanted to know how well antibodies induced by the vaccine, or by a prior COVID infection, would protect people against getting infected with omicron.
There were other questions too, about whether the variant was more transmissible. And about how T-cells would respond to an infection. Now, T-cells are a core part of our body’s immune system. They work alongside – but in a different way – to B-cells, which create antibodies. As a little aside here, Jinal told us a really good analogy about how to understand all this.
Jinal: So the B-cell arm, if you think about a war, is kind of like the archers standing on the brink of the castle and they’re shooting down the invaders before they have a chance to get in. And then the T-cell arm, they actually perform the job of killing the invaders once they’re inside the castle. They’re cells, T-cells, that actually go and kill other cells that are infected with virus.
Gemma: So while the antibodies help prevent infection, it’s the T-cells which help prevent severe disease and hospitalisation.
Another scientist in South Africa looking closely at the data on all this was Shabir Madhi. He’s a professor of vaccinology at the University of Witwatersrand and a dean of the faculty of health sciences there. He’s been working on vaccine research for nearly three decades, and also led two of the COVID-19 vaccine trials conducted in South Africa.
The Conversation has been talking to him a lot during the pandemic to help explain what’s been happening. And Oz and I called him up again to talk about omicron. Now Shabir is based at a hospital in Soweto, a busy township in the south of Johannesburg, and apologies, but you may hear a bit of traffic noise in the background.
Gemma: What was your first reaction when those scientists called you at the end of November and you saw the sequencing?
Shabir Madhi: Well, I was fairly optimistic still. I was much more optimistic than the guys that were doing the sequencing as to what this meant. They feared that this variant was also going to be able to evade T-cell immunity, and I was sceptical about that. Just leveraging on the experience that I ahead almost a year before with the AstraZeneca vaccine, where the beta variant pretty much evaded antibody induced by the AstraZeneca vaccine, but subsequently the same vaccine was shown to protect against severe disease, due to the beta variant.
So, despite the scientists sounding a more pessimistic note, I was still fairly comfortable that we were not going to experience what we had experienced during the course of the delta variant wave in relation to a large number of severe disease cases and death, and that we would be much better off this time round despite the antibody evasiveness.
Gemma: And what were the next few weeks for you like? You know, what were you doing in November, December in those early stages when omicron was spreading?
Shabir: So we obviously have been involved in a number of studies throughout this period of time, and then in addition to that it was really about engaging with the public and with the scientific community in terms of understanding exactly what is it that we’re facing, and what can we expect moving forward.
And just keeping an eye on the data that was starting to flow in very quickly from a number of places which clearly demonstrated that this variant was far more transmissible than anything that we experienced in the past. But already two to three weeks into this wave, we started to then already post on social media and start engaging with the media saying that there’s something very different, where we are seeing the decoupling of infections relative to hospitalisation and death; the death rate was subdued.
So I started to call physicians in the public sector as well as the private sector, asking them “what are you experiencing?” Because there’s this world sort panic around omicron. Everyone is shutting the borders to South Africa, which was another issue that we needed to tackle in terms of calling countries to account for why they were embarking on a strategy which largely would be futile.
But I think the interaction with the physicians on the ground was very informative in that they were telling me clearly that our ICUs are empty. In fact, the majority of infections that are occurring in the hospitals at the time of the peak of the omicron wave were not people being admitted for COVID-19, but rather incidental infections. Because the practice in the public as well as the private hospitals in South Africa is every individual that was being admitted to hospital is tested irrespective of symptomatology. And at the hospital where my research unit is based – in fact the majority of cases that were being identified – were pregnant women that were delivering babies. There’s about 60 women that were delivering babies per day of whom 30-40% of them with testing positive for the virus.
Gemma: This isn’t the first time South African scientists identified a variant of concern.
In December 2020, the WHO labelled a new variant, first discovered in South Africa, as a variant of concern that later became known as beta. At that time, the first COVID-19 vaccines were only just getting approval worldwide, and in South Africa there was limited immunity from the first wave of infection. As cases rose and pressure on hospitalis mounted, restrictions were tightened.
But when the omicron wave arrived, the South African government’s reaction was different. A curfew – in place in various forms since March 2020 – remained, but no new restrictions were introduced. And then in the last days of 2021, the curfew was lifted.
Oz: How do you think the South African government has dealt with omicron? What do you think it got right, what do you think it got wrong?
Shabir: What they got right this time round was not to reflexively go to a higher level of restrictions as soon as they saw a surge in the number of cases and as soon as scientists sounded the warning of a new variant. They had a much more nuanced approach in that they were planning on focusing on hospitalisation and death. So, that is something that really worked in our favour because we sort of avoided doing further harm to the economy, to the livelihoods of people, just to the mental wellbeing of people. And that much more nuanced approach worked extremely well in South Africa.
What did we get wrong? Unfortunately, government didn’t take some advice with regard to ensuring that we got adequate immunisation vaccine coverage, particularly of the high-risk group, we could have done much better rather than just trying to chase off the numbers of people that were vaccinated. And even up until now, the government still hasn’t got this right, is that it needs to focus on getting 90% of people above the age of 50 vaccinated, rather than going for some arbitrary target of 70% of the population. The other thing they completely miscalculated is delaying the booster dose of vaccine to those people above the age of 50 that had already received one or two doses of vaccine. They created a whole lot of hurdles requiring people to come with a doctor certificate before they would be eligible for a booster dose.
Oz: What’s the situation in South Africa now?
Shabir Madhi: So we’re very much at the tail end of the omicron wave. It does differ across the provinces; in Gauteng province the positivity rate, which is a good metric as to the amount of virus likely circulating, is less than 5%. Nationally that has come down to 8%. At the time of the peak of the omicron wave, our positivity rate was roundabout 39% so we can start making some definitive conclusions, and more so for Gauteng province. And what we experienced in Gauteng is that when we look at all of the number of people that have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, the omicron wave contributes to less than 5% of all COVID-19 deaths since since the start of the pandemic. The delta variant wave contributed to 50%.
So we’ve seen a complete decoupling. And again, the same thing goes for hospitalisation. The hospitalisation rate for people that are testing positive, and this includes incidental infections, for the omicron wave is about one third compared to the hospitalisation rate for the delta variant wave. So we’ve just seen a dramatic decoupling of infections, hospitalisation, and death. Deaths have occurred, unfortunately, but we’re sort of going into a period of this pandemic which I term as the convalescent period. And to some extent, my estimate is that the number of people that would have died during the course of the omicron wave is going to be less than the number of people that typically would have died during the course of a season of influenza in South Africa, which was around about 10 to 11,000 before COVID.
Oz: So do you think omicron has made it easier for the world to live with the virus?.
Shabir: Well, I think after the waves have subsided in the countries, countries will reflect with regard to the experience, and I think many countries will start re-calibrating at long last. The UK, pretty much, has now decided that COVID-19 is something they’re going to live with. And I believe many other countries, after this wave has passed, will start coming to the same sort of conclusion. That it’s no longer about preventing infections. Yes, there is consequences to infections, including long COVID, but unfortunately the consequences of the type of restrictions we’ve imposed in society, the economic consequences, the impact of livelihoods, the impact on children in terms of their education, the mental wellbeing of citizens, doesn’t lend itself to a prolongation of the type of restrictions that we’ve indulged in over the past two years.
And also with a high percentage of the population being infected with omicron. I do believe that is going to serve as a boost to immunity that is already arisen from infections, as well as a boost to immunity that has arisen through vaccines. So there’s generally a preservation of the T-cell responses that’s induced by vaccines as well as the natural infection, even when you’ve got variants such as omicron which has got extensive mutations that makes the variant antibody evasive. So I do believe that with omicron being so transmissible, that people will be even more protected against severe disease and possibly even against infections in the next few months.
Gemma: Omicron will not be the last coronavirus variant. Others have emerged since causing flashes of alarm, but so far none of them have been labelled a variant of concern by the WHO. But how much do we know about the way new variants like omicron emerge? Oz put this question to Jinal Bhiman.
Oz: What do we we know, what don’t we know, about where omicron came from?
Jinal: So there are three hypotheses for where this virus came from, and there is not good enough evidence to support any one.
So the first theory, which I think was propagated quite a lot initially, was that because there are so many mutations in omicron, it could have arisen in somebody who had prolonged infection. And because this person has more than two weeks infection with the virus, you have a situation – it’s a closed environment, basically – where you have a cat and mouse between that person’s antibody response and the virus, and that is what drives the selection of more and more mutations. And because it was South Africa, a lot of people were saying this arose in somebody who was HIV positive who had prolonged infection. Because we do know that quite a number of HIV positive people have these prolonged infections because their immune systems are not optimal, obviously.
The second theory is that this virus did a loop and went back into some kind of animal species and has been replicating and being transmitted within this animal species and mutating over time and then swirled back into humans. That’s the second one. And then the third theory is that it’s been mutating, slowly. I mean, this virus has been with us for over two years now and it’s been mutating in the background and because we don’t sequence every single person that’s infected, we don’t even know of every single person that’s infected because there’s so many asymptomatic infections, that this has been mutating in the background and we just haven’t picked it up because it hasn’t infected a large number of people. And maybe it hasn’t been transmissible until it acquired one or two mutations that allowed it to explode.
Oz: How important is it to understand the origins of variants to understand the future trajectory of COVID-19?
Jinal: If we identify the origin of a variant, whether we can practically, you know, find solutions to prevent this from happening, I don’t know that that’s reasonable to even think about. But I think, for example, if we conclusively say that HIV-infected individuals who are immunocompromised are causing for selection of these kinds of variants, then it certainly provides stronger evidence and stronger motivation for us to get back to our HIV programmes, to make sure that we’re trying to get as many people onto ARVs, and virologically suppressed as possible, and return the focus to kind of pre-pandemic issues that are still prevailing.
Gemma: Another variant could spring up anywhere in the world at any time. But which scientists detect it – and where – will ultimately depend on a country’s sequencing and testing capacity.
Oz: What do you think the lessons South Africa’s experience with omicron can provide for the rest of the world and the discovery of other variants in the future?
Shabir: So I think there was a huge amount of scepticism as late as two to three weeks ago with regard to the South African experience and what we were showcasing, where we saying there was this huge decoupling of infection, severe disease and death. And much of that was coming from the north, because they felt that well, the northern hemisphere countries are very different from South Africa in terms of the demographic, which is true. But at the same time, that seems to be oblivious to the reality and to the data. South Africa does not have this phenomenally healthy population. In fact, we’ve got an unhealthier population, despite the younger population than many high income countries. And we have been disproportionately affected during the course of the first three waves.
So there seemed to be a reluctance to accept that the data that we’re showing and optimism that we were expressing was something that was real, until they started to all of a sudden report it from the US and Anthony Fauci indicated we’re seeing the decoupling and you should focus on hospitalisation and death. And then the UK came out and said, well, we’ve also seen this decoupling. And all of a sudden this became the mantra that there is this decoupling. Well, we did say it about a month ago, and we need to ask why was that information … and I do believe it was scientists, high-income country governments were very dismissive and didn’t really apply their minds in terms of the experience that was coming out from South Africa.
Oz: So recently in an interview with BBC, you expressed that you thought western scepticism of the analysis coming out of South Africa was racist. Can you tell us why, what led you to say this?
Shabir: Yeah, so I need to correct it. I didn’t say that it was racist. In fact, I was asked by the person that was interviewing me whether it’s racism. And I said it might be, but I don’t think it’s racism. I think, especially as a South African, we’re extremely sensitive to the use of the term racism. What I do believe it is, is cultural imperialism, which is different. And cultural imperialism has got an element of superiority. Superiority of thought and superiority that “we know best”.
But again, when people express concern that your experience is going to be different in our country, that has got 90% vaccine coverage, for me that is difficult to comprehend because it undermines the case for vaccination. And especially when we think the primary goal of vaccines is to protect against severe disease and death. And then all of a sudden to make a U-turn and say, well, we can’t really say whether these vaccines are going to protect against severe disease and deaths due to omicron, knowing that vaccines induce a substantial amount of other responses than just antibody responses, which are less effected by the mutations that have occurred. And the models are already predicted that the T-cell immunity that was going to be induced by vaccines and by past infection, were going to be relatively conserved, despite the mutations that occurred in omicron. I mean, I think those scientists and governments need to explain themselves. But I do believe it’s a manifestation of cultural imperialism where we will not believe anyone else unless we show the same first.
Gemma: How can other countries prepare themselves if they discover a variant in their geography in the future, learning from South Africa’s experience? What should they be focusing on?
Shabir: Well to avoid the type of reaction that was inflicted on South Africa, just don’t share your data, that’s the safest thing to do! And obviously that’s the most reckless thing to do and the most unscientific thing to do. And I think the global community needs to make a stance that when countries start reporting data, they’re not going to be penalised for it.
Which is pretty much what happened to South Africa. South Africa were penalised for being forthcoming with the data. And that’s an incorrect approach. And we’ve now learned over the course of four waves that you can not prevent the dissemination of a variant by restricting travel to and from a handful of countries, it doesn’t work. So I think we need to, as a global community, have some sort of agreement, which countries need to abide to, that if they were one thing to prevent importation of the variant into the countries, they will shut the borders to the rest of the world, without any exception. On the other hand, if they are wanting to be part of the global community, then they need to accept that you take on some risk and that risk needs to be shared.
So again South Africa has done a marvellous job in terms of sequencing. They’ve got a very structured program that’s been very aggressive when experiencing resurgence. To investigate the genesis of that resurgence – the beta variant as well as the omicron variant were largely a consequence of responding to a peak in cases in one part of the country or another. So I would certainly believe that countries need to continue, but at the same time, I think it’s important as scientists for us to be measured in a manner in which we communicate the information.
And much of the fallout from omicron was because of the manner in which we communicated the potential consequences of these mutations without really sitting back and saying, “well, there is a different dimension to this.” So we need to continue keeping our eye on emergence of new variants, but we need to be careful in terms of using the computer modelling about the potential effects of the mutations and extrapolating that this is what will happen from a clinical perspective.
Gemma: South African scientists are still working hard to understand omicron and what it does to our bodies. We asked Jinal Bhiman what questions she and her colleagues are currently trying to answer.
Jinal: Currently, omicron has been sub-categorised into three different lineages, and then a further sublineage within one of those. And what’s interesting is that initially one of those lineages has been responsible for global cases. And now we’re seeing the second one of those sublineages is actually starting to increase in frequency.
So, what we want to know is what’s the difference? Does the second sublineage have some kind of immune difference? Is it more resistant? Is it less resistant? Can it produce more virulence more effectively in our cells than the first version? Trying to understand those differences because the second sublineage, it’s dominating in India, it’s dominating in Denmark. We’re seeing increases here in South Africa as well.
We’re also trying to look at what happens after breakthrough infection. Because what we’ve seen is that now with omicron, most people are not getting severely ill, right? So what is happening in terms of their antibody response?
Gemma: It could be one boosts the other. You’ve had the vaccine and then the infection boosts the response of the vaccine?
Jinal: Yeah, it definitely does. But we want to understand – because we’re scientists and we just like going into detail – is it just because there’s more antibody, like, irrespective of the quality of the response, there’s just more of it? Or is it because the antibody is maturing and it’s changing and getting better when you have this boost by infection?
Gemma: Wow, fascinating. One final question. What advice would you give scientists elsewhere in the world who might be the first to discover a variant of concern in the future, given your own experience and what’s happened to you in those early days and then what’s happened since?
Jinal: I would go for transparency. Be open, be honest. And I think the WHO has now made a lot of recommendations that travel bans are not useful, they’re not rational. And so hopefully countries going forward will not stigmatise other countries that are identifying variants of concern or new variants. I mean, I understand as well it’s, you know, acting out of caution and when you don’t know, you want to be as cautious as possible. But, we need to think more globally and we need to think of how these things impact everyone, not just your own country.
Gemma: Well thank you, Jinal, for all the work you and your team are doing and the breakthroughs you’re making, and just your contribution to all our safety. We appreciate it, from all over the world.
Jinal: Thank you, thanks.
Gemma: Oz, before you go, let’s give a shout out to your podcast, Pasha.
Dan: Can you tell the listeners what your podcast is about, Oz?
Oz: Sure, so Pasha is The Conversation Africa’s podcast. In it we try to give you some of the best and brightest research on the African continent.
Gemma: And people can find it by searching for Pasha wherever you get your podcasts. Do subscribe everybody. Thanks for coming on Oz, it’s been great having you on the show.
Oz: Thanks for having me.
Dan: Thank you!
Gemma: Now, for our next story, we’re going to hear about some new science in the field of cross-cultural musicology: the way different cultures perceive music.
Dan: In particular, the open question this research asked was whether cultures perceive the emotional meaning of harmonies differently. Basically, can happy chords to western ears sound sad to someone from a different culture? Or is that feeling somehow innate to all humans? To find out, I called up George Athanasopoulos from Durham University in the UK.
George Athanasopoulos: I am an ethnomusicologist and I work together with music psychologists trying to resolve the mysteries of music and emotion in a cross-cultural perspective. So the focus of the research that I did whilst I was working at the music and science lab of Durham University together with my colleagues, was how we perceive elements of music and specific musical harmony in a cross-cultural setting.
So, what we wanted to see was first, whether all people regardless of their cultural background have the potential to distinguish emotions which are found in music in the sense of perception, not emotional feeling, because these are two very different things.
Dan: Can you explain the difference in what you mean between feeling an emotion from music versus perceiving an emotion from music?
George: For example, if someone listens to a very happy tune and as in, for example, Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles, they may be able to be certain that this is a happy tune, or at least the band is trying to convey happiness through the song, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I am feeling happy right now when I listen to the song.
Dan: So how is happiness conveyed in western music through harmony?
George: OK, so the concept of harmony at least in the west, it’s how we create music that sounds “together”. So imagine as voices being built upon each other. This element, where music sounds together or voicing sounds together is called a chord, when it is built on layer upon layer of people trying to sing together and then instruments playing together. Other cultures do not necessarily think like this, when they are creating their music, when they’re trying to build their fundamental building blocks. For example, a melodic line in some cultures may be more important than the court progressions that we’ve got in the west.
Dan: Can you give an example of a song that includes what we consider a sad sounding chord or harmony in the west?
George: So, a very sad song from The Beatles, for example, would be And I Love Her. Yeah, that’s very sad song in the minor chord.
Dan: So what you’re saying is someone might listen to The Beatles And I Love Her and interpret that totally different from an emotional perspective, depending on the culture they’re influenced by?
George: Yep, that was the first part of our research. So basically, sit down and see how the emotional perception of music is influenced – if it is influence-able – by our listeners’ cultures.
The second objective that we wanted to see was whether the western concepts of music, which are specifically related to, let’s say, a major chord having a happy connotation and a minor chord having a sad connotation, hold any sort of truth outside a western cultural environment.
Then the next block that we needed to see and assess is how much has the culture that we intended to work with been influenced by western culture. Ever since the internet has arrived, everyone the moment that they connect to the internet, they will try to go to music-sharing platforms to listen to and download the latest hits by Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande. So then, our job is very, very difficult.
In our case, the cultures that we chose to work with were in remote northwest Pakistan, close to the borders with Afghanistan. The reason why we chose to work there was, first of all, because there is an unstable electricity grid, which means to an effect that there is no stable internet connection unless one is prepared to travel two hours away to the closest town.
Dan: And then what do you do? So tell me how you actually went to this place and tested these theories to see if music is cross-cultural.
George: Before we even started playing music for our participants, first, we had voice recordings. Voice recordings from Urdu, which is the lingua franca in Pakistan. And then we would ask our participants, can you recognise the emotion expressed in this voice recording?
If they were able to do it with their own language, then we will move on along to German. And the reason why we picked German, because it was almost impossible that anyone there would speak German. If you were able to do it in German, as in recognise the expression, the emotional expression of the speakers, then we’ll say, “OK, this is going pretty well, let’s now try it with their own music”. And ask them what’s the emotional connotation behind this piece of music?.
If we were able to do this, then we move them on to western music. And we would ask them, can you discern the emotional connotations of this piece of western music? Now, we didn’t use any type of music. We used music from a database, which we knew already the emotional connotations that it would elicit from listeners in the west. So we were able to compare and contrast between our two groups.
So, once our participants were able to discern emotions in their own language, in a foreign language, in their own music, and then in western music, only and only then we would start playing to them artificial musical stimuli that we had developed in the lab, which would assess specifically the concept of musical harmony.
Dan: So, sounds like you successfully did jump through these hoops, George. So tell me, what did you guys find? Is harmony a cross-cultural universal thing or is it different?
George: So, first of all, we found that our participants, regardless if they were westerners or if they came from tribes in northwest Pakistan, they were very, very successful in being able to recognise emotion in speech.
Second thing, they are very, very good in recognising emotions in the music, even outside their own cultural sphere. Why is that? Because some fundamental elements of music – as in tempo, and loudness, and even pitch height – works in a similar manner across cultures. So the faster a piece is, the more energy it conveys, at least to the perception of the listener. The more loud a piece of music is the more dominant it is perceived to be.
And now here comes the interesting cultural bit, because when we started collecting data, we saw for specific pieces of music, he emotional connotations started to differ. And why is this? Because the tribes in northwest Pakistan do not have the same ideas about tags in music as we do in the west.
Dan: What do you mean by tags?
George: By tags, I mean the way that we separate the music into different genres, and the connotations that we have for each genre. And now this created some very, very interesting results for us. For example, our participants thought that heavy metal music, because it is very, very fast and very, very loud conveys happiness.
Why is that? Because their own music, when it’s trying to express joy and happiness is very fast and very loud, so that everyone can dance to it. So they would listen to speed metal from 1980s, from Grip Inc to Slayer to Sepultura, to Mayhem they would think, “oh my God, this is happy music”.
At the same time, they would listen to Rossini operas, and at least some Rossini operas in the western cultural sphere are perceived to be very, very happy, especially tunes from the Barber of Seville. However, our participants, when they would listen to it, they would rate it as being less happy than the pieces from speed metal that they would listen to beforehand. And vice versa.
At the same time, there were commonalities across groups. For example, when our participants would listen to very sad, very emotional film music, they would be able to discern that this music conveys sadness. Why? Because the tempo was extremely slow. It was not so loud. And the way that they saw it, it also matched their idea, their perception of something sad.
Dan: OK, so that has to do with the actual songs themselves, but let’s get into the harmonies because this was kind of the end goal of your research. So what did you find with harmonies?
George: The idea that we have in the west that major chords convey happiness is not necessarily true outside the western cultural sphere. And why is that? Because after hours and hours of experimenting with the two tribes in northwest Pakistan, we found that actually for them, it is the minor chord, which conveys happiness.
And how did we come to see this? Because of their own music, it’s overwhelmingly in the minor scale, especially one of the two tribes. So one tribe was the Kho and the other tribe was the Kalash. So for the Kho tribe, we’ve done an analysis of their own music through cassette recordings that we bought at the local market. And we saw that about 85% of the music is in the minor mode. A small percent, 10% is in the major mode. And then 5% is in an in-between mode between major and minor. OK, so we saw that by exposure alone, their perception of what conveys happiness and what doesn’t, is reversed in relation to the west. Another thing that we found is that the way that dissonance and consonance is perceived is somewhat similar to the west.
Dan: Can you just explain for people who don’t know what dissonance and consonance are?
George: Yes, absolutely. So, consonance is something which when we listen to it, to our perception and perspective, sounds good. Dissonance is something that, let’s say, a blast, a chromatic blast of a fist slamming down on a piano, that’s rather dissonance. OK. What we came to see was that specific elements of dissonance are universal. And why is that? We think that it has something to do with the inner ear, the way that our inner ear functions and it perceives sounds.
Dan: Very cool. Well, George, last question. What’s next?
George: My next project explores how music can affect, and in turn is affected, by social cultural parameters. So, we’re trying to see what else can music do for us apart from conveying emotions.
Dan: I very much look forward to it, George. It’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you today, thank you so much.
George: Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to talk about my research.
Dan: You can read a story that George and his colleague Imre Lahdelma have written about their research on The Conversation. It’s a part of a series of long form articles we run called Insights.
One last thing, George actually mentioned a really cool project called the Global Jukebox. It’s run by a friend of his and basically a website with a map of the world on it. And you can just click around and listen to music from literally thousands of different places across the globe. It’s super cool.
Gemma: Elsewhere on The Conversation this week, we’ve been covering the political pressure British prime minister Boris Johnson is facing over parties held at No. 10 Downing Street during coronavirus lockdowns. Here’s Laura Hood in London.
Laura Hood: Hi, I’m Laura Hood, politics editor for The Conversation based in London, where it’s been a very difficult few weeks for our prime minister Boris Johnson. Johnson’s been plagued by allegations for months now that he and his staff were holding parties at Downing Street and in other government buildings at the height of the pandemic in 2020. And the reason why this has caused so much anger is that the rest of the country was, at that time, living under strict lockdown rules set by the government. The drama peaked this week when the initial findings of an internal investigation were published by senior civil servant Sue Gray, and Gray has uncovered behaviour that she said was “difficult to justify”, including a culture of excessive drinking. And she’s revealed that no fewer than 16 separate events had been identified as inappropriate.
So, the Gray report was a heavily stripped back version of what we had been expecting, and that’s because, as we’ve now learned, 12 of these 16 events had been referred to the police. So the UK currently has a leader who is under criminal investigation.
Robert Pyper, emeritus professor of government and public policy at the University of the West of Scotland, gave us four key takeaways on the day the report was released, and he wrote that while Johnson has survived the immediate fallout, he has every reason to fear the outcome of the police investigations. Members of his party are furious with him and worry that keeping him as leader could damage their electoral prospects.
Stephen Gibb, who’s also from the University of the West of Scotland, wrote for us about how Johnson responded to the Gray report. He helped us read between the lines of Johnson’s speech in parliament, and saw that the prime minister’s attempts to make this an admin issue were really a thinly veiled deflection tactic designed to draw attention away from his personal failings as a leader.
The next few weeks will be decisive for Johnson. He’s hoping to appease his critics within the party as soon as he possibly can, and that’s because if 54 of them write letters of no confidence to their parliamentary caucus leader, he could face a leadership challenge. Our experts will be on hand to bring you updates every step of the way.
Gemma: Laura Hood there in London. That’s it for this week. Thanks to all the academics who’ve spoken to us for this episode, and thanks to The Conversation editors Ina Skosana, Paul Keaveny, Josephine Lethbridge and Stephen Khan. Thanks also to Alice Mason for our social media promotion and Katie Francis with help on our transcripts.
Dan: You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email by clicking the link in the show notes.
Gemma: The Conversation Weekly is co-produced by Mend Mariwany and me, Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.
Dan: I’m Dan Merino. Thank you for listening.