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Music and emotion

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This article is a very brief exploration of the multi-faceted relationship between music and emotion. Many scientific disciplines deal with this topic, including philosophy, musicology and psychology. The perspective presented here is mainly a psychological one, yet some theoretical and philosophical considerations will be made to clarify prevailing concepts about music and emotions and how they can be connected.


Expressiveness of music - philosophical problems

Claiming that music is expressive of emotions and that it can elicit emotions in the listener does not seem highly disputable at first glance. However, this claim gives rise to a number of questions. 1. How can a piece of music (when we consider purely instrumental music without any vocals, text or title) appear emotional, as a piece of music is no psychological agent? 2. Why would we respond emotionally to music knowing that there is nobody undergoing the emotion expressed? 3. What are psychological mechanisms that lead to the emotional reaction in the listener? 4. What is the nature of these emotions? The first question deals with how emotions are transported in the music, questions 2-4 with emotions in the listener. (Not mentioned here are emotions in the composer or the performer.) However, perceiving a piece of music as to be emotional and being moved by this emotion mostly go in hand. We don’t find it hard to explain why and how we respond emotionally to something expressing an emotion, e.g. a person expressing joy or sadness (or indirectly to an event like an earthquake that affects people as to express an emotion, which ends up being the same). A stone rarely moves us to tears, so why would music do that? Thus, the core of this problem is the question how music can be expressive at all. This problem is examined by the field of aesthetics.

Appearance emotionalism

Two of the most influential philosophers in the aesthetics of music are Stephen Davies and Jerrold Levinson (cf. Without going into the depths of the philosophical argument, this view mainly follows Davies’ [1]position. He terms his concept the expressiveness of emotions in music appearance emotionalism. Appearance emotionalism holds that music is for example sad in the same way the posture of a person is sad or a weeping willow is sad. A piece of music is not sad because it feels sadness, but because it expresses sadness, it is sad in appearance. Why does something (that is not a person) appear sad? Because we can identify in its structure certain characteristics that we know from a person’s expression of sadness. We would sometimes call an old hunchbacked lady sad (although we don’t doubt that she might feel completely differently) because she looks like someone sad we’ve already seen. In the same way we would call a piece of music sad because its dynamic character resembles a person’s expression of sadness. “The resemblance that counts most for music’s expressiveness (…) is between music’s temporally unfolding dynamic structure and configurations of human behaviour associated with the expression of emotion” (Davies 2006, p. 181 ). If a person does not give verbal account of his or her feelings , the observer can still note them from the person’s posture, gait, gestures, attitude, and comportment. Music recalls an appearance of sadness e.g., according to Davies, by a slow and quiet downward movement, underlying patterns of unresolved tension, dark timbre , heavy or thick harmonic bass textures (Davies 2006, p. 182). Not everybody associates the same musical features with the same emotion. Appearance emotionalism does not claim that movement in music generally resembles human behaviour but that many listeners have this perception of similarity, and that this is the crucial connection that constitutes the expressiveness of music. This perception of similarity can be widely common among listeners or highly individual. Which musical features are more commonly associated with certain emotions is left over to the testing of music psychology (see next paragraph). Davies claims that expressiveness is an objective property of music and not subjective in the sense of being projected into the music by the listener. Music’s expressiveness is certainly response-dependent, i.e. it is realized in the listener’s judgement. However, suitably skilled listeners display a high degree of agreement in attributing emotional expressiveness to a certain piece of music. Although this is an empirical finding, it indicates according to Davies (2006) that the expressiveness of music has to be somewhat objective. If there was no expressiveness in the music, no expression could be projected into it as a reaction to the music.

Psychological mechanisms involved in emotions elicited by music

Looking at the various components of emotional responses to music and the related brain processes will explain why listener’s responses to music are often identical – and which responses may be different. An emotion is a mental state of a being. It arises in a person rather spontaneously and involves several physiological changes, cognitive components and various aspects of subjective evaluation. Scherer [2] argues that emotion is a “hypothetical construct” (p.240) which consists of a number of parts including physiological arousal , motor expression, subjective feeling, behaviour preparation and cognitive processes. Without doubt, in order to scientifically examine the phenomenon of emotions it is necessary to identify such components and define variables that are measurable. The following list of components and processes is oriented at Patrik Juslin’s [3] framework of “mechanisms” that lead to emotions induced by music.

Physiological arousal

- changes in heart rate, breathing frequency, temperature sensation - part of the body’s “warning system” for important/urgent events or danger; auditory criteria: fast, loud, very low/high pitched, dissonant - e.g. dissonance as an aspect in warning calls - equally: relaxing effects of music - brain stem reflexes: early turnoffs from the auditory pathway - influences the pleasantness of a piece of music, but may also affect a person’s subjective/cognitive evaluation of a piece of through proprioceptive feedback (Scherer 2004, p.241). - listeners try to establish an “optimal arousal level” depending on the situation (e.g. Rave vs. candlelight dinner) and personality characteristics

Emotional contagion

= mimicking of an expression perceived in the music. a) by taking over certain aspects of physiological arousal through proprioception (see paragraph above) Cf. William James [4] - “our feeling of the bodily changes as they occur is the emotion” (p.189-190). b) by mirroring the expressiveness of music (as “iconic emotions”): slow tempo, low pitch, low sound level-> sadness - see above: perception of similarity between music’s expressiveness and a person’s expression of emotions - similarity of music and emotional speech (Juslin and Laukka [5]): music and speech share some emotion-specific acoustic cues (concerning loudness, tempo, timbre, attack) - conceptualizing of musical structure through visual imagery: e.g. ascending scale as “upward”; creation of internal landscapes as musical images - neuroimaging and electrophysiological findings: - e.g. mirror-neurons in the premotor cortex of monkeys are activated both during their own action and another monkey’s action - pre-motor representation of vocal sound production may be activated by only-listening to music (Koelsch et al [6])

Musical expectancy

- The course of a piece of music sometimes violates, delays or confirms a skilled listener’s expectation about how the piece will continue. (Dependence on learning and experience of listener.) - syntactical relationship between different parts of a piece (e.g. harmonic progression, repetition of parts, melody, …) - might influence general arousal and apprehension/anxiety, disappointment

Learning and memory*

Episodic memory

Episodic memory or the ‘Darling, they are playing our tune phenomenon’ (Davies), is certainly of eminent importance to people’s everyday emotional reactions to music. However, it is not a primary emotional reaction to music as to some of its specific features, but a secondary one. An emotional response elicited by a piece of music only through the music’s ability to link to a certain memory is independent of what the music expresses itself. The same string quartet might conjure up happy emotions in the wedding guest and horrible emotions in a survivor from a concentration camp who heard it there. - for episodic memory, music is only a retrieval cue - physiological reaction pattern to original event is memorized alongside with the experienced content? - tendency to youth and early adulthood: music as an important part for the consolidation of a listener’s self-identity in adolescence?

Evaluative conditioning

Definition: music as a conditioned stimulus repeatedly paired with another emotional stimulus; less specific than episodic memory; e.g. the Bavarian beer-fest tune “Ein Prosit der Gemuetlichkeit”.

(* These mechanisms are most individual among the components mentioned here, and as they lack a direct connection they are not be considered primary processes that link music and emotion.)

The nature of musical emotions (some aspects)

The last problem to be considered here is the nature of the emotions elicited by music. Take the kind of sadness one may feel hearing the Rachmaninoff’s second piano concert. The listener in this case feels a different kind of sadness than for loss of a loved person. He neither feels regret for the music as for an unfortunate event, nor compassion for a sentient being experiencing tragedy. Juslin and Västfjäll (2008)state that the listener’s emotional reaction lacks the cognitive appraisal of a “real” emotion, i.e. the subjective evaluation of an event, in this case the music, in relation to goals and needs of the individual. This led some theorists to the conclusion that music does not elicit emotions at all or that music can only elicit moods, i.e. affective states with lower intensity than emotions and without a clear object (cf. Juslin and Västfjäll 2008). Stephen Davies rejects this view. Although the emotional response does not take the music as its intentional object, music is the “perceptional object and the cause for this response”. The listener’s response of sadness is “not about the music, but to the music” (Davies 2006). The emotion enfolds over the course of the music and as a consequence of it. Juslin and Västfjäll (2008)compiled evidence that most of the psychological processes that lead to a real-life emotion can also be found in the emotional responses to music. These include subjective feeling, physiological arousal, brain activation, action tendency, and emotion regulation. Thus, they argue, music-induced emotions are of the same quality as “normal” emotions are, and do not just represent moods.

Still, emotions elicited by music have some characteristics that make them different from real-life emotions. Coming back to the example of the piano concert, the sadness felt at hearing it does not only lack the regret of the sadness at the death of a loved person, but it is also certainly less intense. There seem to be emotional intensities of real-life events that the experience of an artwork cannot reach. In addition, most emotions, particularly the negative ones, felt when listening to music seem to have a positive tinge. Why do we seek the experience of a negative emotion as in a sad piece of music? One reason is that we appreciate, in an artistic, aesthetic way, the music as an artwork that manages to create the expressiveness. Another reason is given by Kendall Walton (see Sadness is not negative in itself. Rather the life situation that causes it, e.g. the death of a loved person, is negative. “Thus, though we would not seek out the death of a loved one, given the death we ‘welcome’ the sorrow.” Music gives the listener the possibility of self-experience through real emotions, without the consequences of real-life circumstances, just as any art and play does. --Markus Brandstetter 08:41, 31 August 2008 (CDT)


  1. Davies, S. (2006). "Artistic Expression and the Hard Case of Pure Music, in: Kieran, M. (Ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art": 179-91.
  2. Scherer, K.R. (2004). "Which Emotions Can be Induced by Music? What Are the Underlying Mechanisms? And How Can We Measure Them?". Journal of New Music Research 33 (3): 239-251
  3. •Juslin, P.; Västfjäll, D. (2008). "Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms". Behavioural and Brain Sciences: in press.
  4. •James, W. (1884). "What is an emotion". Mind 9 (34): 188-205.
  5. •Juslin, P.N.; Laukka, P. (2003). "Communication of emotions in vocal expression and music performance: different channels, same code?". Psychol Bull 129 (5): 770-814. Retrieved on 2008-06-26.
  6. •Koelsch, S.; Fritz, T.; Von Cramon, D.Y.; Müller, K.; Friederici, A.D. (2006). "Investigating emotion with music: an fMRI study". Human Brain Mapping 27 (3): 239-250. DOI:10.1002/hbm.20180
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