Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Emotion/Music

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Emotion and Music[edit source]

This page is part of the Motivation and emotion textbook. See also: Guidelines.
Completion status: this resource is considered to be complete.

Introduction - How does music influence emotions?[edit | edit source]

This chapter explains how music can evoke certain emotions within people, for example when an individuals favorite song is played this can sometimes alter a person's emotional state from being sad and depressed to being joyful and happy. As such, music plays an integral part in our lives whether we are aware of it or not, even for those who share little interest in listening or making music it still can trigger certain responses within people as they relate to what is being heard. In light of this, the following focusquestions are addressed:

  • How does music influence emotions?
This focus area covers three subsections, what is music? How does music affect people? Why is it important?
  • Bridging the Gap Between Emotion and Music
This focus area covers two main theories of how emotion is generated from and within music. These specific theories are, Musical Anticipation and Musical Tension and Emotional Responses

This chapter will cover a brief history of music and human emotion from a theoretical standpoint, with a focus on emotional-music specific theories of how emotion is generated. Additional resources include a subpage for those interested in learning a brief and interesting history about the major musical styles and to also provide a relaxed and fun way of learning more about the world of music its universality.

What is music?[edit | edit source]

Music's roots run deep through the veins of human emotion, and trigger a certain “feeling” in every person who listens to it and It is the way in which music is able to convey emotions and induce pleasures which are most meaningful to the human mind (Vuust & Kringelbach, 2010). Music has played an integral part in the lives of human beings since the beginning of our species. Its significance through the ages has stood the test of time, and has shown that it brings together people from all corners of the globe. It's powers of unity are unmeasurable in mere numbers and it is something that can only be qualitatively measured by the effect it has on people’s emotions and behavior's. For people of every age, every culture or any gender, music has always been the soundtrack to a person life, it helps define who we are as an individual and also who we associate with as part of a group. Listeners of music tend to gravitate towards styles because they have specific, or particular needs, issues and personality characteristics that the music they choose satisfies (Schwartz, 2004), it can give an insight into the emotional state of a person, their interests and their personalities. For youth, music plays an important part in their lives, as they begin to adjust and search for their place in the world, Leung and Kier (2008) explain that for youth, the number of hours spent actually listening to music is almost as big as the number of hours they have physically spent at school. Leung & Kier (2008) make note of an interesting quote by Arnett (1991), whereby they state that:

It is not just a musical preference to them, but an intense avocation that shapes their view of the world, their spending habits, their moods, their friendships, their notion of who and what is admirable, and their hopes for what they might become. (Arnett, 1991)

The styles and types of music are typically grouped into these major categories, they are

  • Rock
  • Blues
  • Jazz
  • Classical

These categories cover a broad range of styles, and involve a plethora of subtypes thus it is hard to fully explain each individual type, so they are grouped into categories. In light of this, each category attracts a certain type of person/s, all with different personalities, beliefs, values and for the intents and purposes of this chapter, emotions. All these styles evoke different emotions within the listener, but it is the individuals perception of this which lets the emotion from the song change their mood. For more information see Musical styles.

How does music affect people?[edit | edit source]

So what is the importance of music to the human mind, and why does it tug at the core of human emotions? When asked about what simple pleasures in life people would miss the most, it is not surprising to hear that music is right at the top of the list (Vuust & Kringelbach, 2010). For humans, music has the ability to bring on a wide range of emotions, which according to Vuust and Kringelbach, are both similar and also different to those found in other activities, such as sport and sex. This experience in emotion stemming from music can typically be described as being euphoric in nature (Blood & Zatorre, 2001), and is usually accompanied by the autonomic or psycho-physiological experience known as “shivers down the spine” (Blood & Zatorre). These chills are the physical component of the emotion experienced by the individual, and are usually induced when the piece being heard has a profound effect on the individuals emotional state, whether this be because they feel they can relate the music to the current stage in their life, or current events that are happening. In short, they feel it is representative of their emotional state. Zangwill (2007) states that we describe music in terms of emotion; but why? Perhaps this is because emotions or parts of are inherently a part of what music is. However, the notion that music evokes emotions is interesting because music has no survival or intrinsic biological value (Blood, Zatorre, Bermudez & Evans, 1999)

Vuust and Kringelbach (2010) state that music is a two way process, by which the emotional experience of the musical piece itself and the qualities which are activated are shaped not only by the musical expression but also by the brains interpretation of this. These feelings, or emotional-musical relationships are something that every individual would have experienced at least once if not hundreds, or thousands of times in their life. However, these are not solely limited to feelings of euphoria or physical chills, but are also associated with feelings of nostalgia, happiness, sadness, surprise and physical reactions such as crying, laughing, dancing or smiling. Notably, there are emotions which are considered somewhat unique to music, Vuust and Kringelbach highlight one of these unique emotions as being the sensation of swing. They further go on to highlight that the word “emotion”, is closely linked to the Latin word for movement (“movere”) which means “to move”. It implies that music moves us in some way (Zangwill, 2007), a feeling truly unique to music.

It is its ability to induce emotion almost on queue which is indicative of its importance in our lives (Blood & Zatorre, 2001). Just think of the last time a song moved you, how did it make you feel? Joyful? Depressed? Energized? Hopeful? If so, then the music is affecting how you feel emotionally. Stewart (2008) mentions that listening to music and playing it stimulates different parts of the human brain bringing upon physical reactions as well, some of which have been mentioned earlier such as the sensation of shivers down the spine and chills, and other physical sensations associated with certain emotions for example;

  • Happiness = Rise in heart rate, increased rate of breathing
  • Sadness = Rise in blood pressure, temperature and slower pulse (Stewart, 2008)(Juslin & Sloboda, 2001)

For example, songs played in a major key (happy sounding), and at an increased tempo cause the same physical reactions that are associated with happiness (Stewart, 2008), and songs played at a slower tempo and in a minor key (sad sounding) evoke the same reactions associated with sadness (Stewart). Of critical importance in understanding the history of the idea that music can have either an calming or arousing affect on both the peripheral and vegetative nervous system is not a recent one and has existed since ancient Greek philosophy (Juslin & Sloboda, 2001). In fact, the first study of these effects on the cardiovascular system was performed by the French composer Gretry (1741-1813), who attempted to measure the effects that singing had on the cardiovascular system by placing a finger on an artery (Juslin & Sloboda). Furthermore, Stewart explains that it is part of the basic human instinct to create music and that this creation is part of a universal language, a language which not only is understand by many cultures no matter how different, but has also existed for as long a human culture has. It pre-dates agriculture, language and could in fact precede human existence (Stewart).

Surprisingly, music has been found to actually be an effective manager for acute pain (Siedliecki & Good, 2006)

Why is music important?[edit | edit source]

Music is important in our everyday lives, because it evokes a certain emotional response within everyone. Some of these may be positive, others may be negative, in the end it all comes down to the perception of the musical piece itself and how it affects the individual. Its importance within the social context stems from the single purpose of evoking emotion within people, whether this is through the messages within the music itself, or because of its ability to engage the listener and composer in feelings of nostalgia, belonging, sadness, happiness, euphoria, or to even trigger certain memories.

A musician's perspective on the Importance of music in his life - Dallas Green on why he loves to do what he does

Take for example, the Civil Rights Movement in America during the mid 1900s, also sometimes referred to as “The Movement of Song” (Paige, 2007).. A number of musicians, African-American and also White American started expressing their thoughts and feelings of the current struggles for equality through the power of music. If their voices could not be heard on the political stage, then music would be their voice, their arena to evoke emotion in those who listened to it. The Freedom Singers were a group representative of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, whereby their repertoire of spirituals and hymns conveyed deep emotion and allowed them to spread the message through song of their plight (Paige). It allowed them to educate its listeners about the movement, and formed a communication tool they could effectively use to reach the public (Paige).

A number of musicians claim that music is a universal form of human communication (Ball, 2010) and it is said that music transcends all barriers of language and also culture (Ball).

Bridging the gap between Emotion and Music[edit | edit source]

How is it possible for music to induce pleasure or emotion responses within humans? One of the major underpinning theoretical frameworks aimed at addressing this relationship between emotion and music has been derived from the research of Vuust & Kringelbach (2010). They state that musical emotion is developed through three major processes, and they stem from an understanding of brain functions, they are;

  • Hardwired responses - These responses refer to the way sound is processed by the auditory responses, and how music can evoke survival responses. For example when we hear lound sounds, it triggers the fear response (Vuust & Kringelbach, 2010)
  • Extramusical Association - This governs how we make the links between a specific emotion and the extramusical space it is carried within (Vuust & Kringelbach)
  • Anticipation - This refers to how the anticipatory neural structures and mechanisms are triggered, evoking certain responses such as fullfillment or disappointment (Vuust & Kringelbach)

These three processes offer a way in which music-specific emotions can be explained, and provide a framework to the understanding of the experience of music itself. Of the three however, the latter may provide a more critical insight into musics ability to evoke emotion.

Musical anticipation[edit | edit source]

This is the process whereby which a specific feature of the music evokes emotion/s in a listener because the music either violates, delays, or confirms the anticipation of the continuation of the music (Vuust & Kringelbach, 2010). Furthermore, this anticipation has a strong link to the "motion over time between opposites" (Vuust & Kringelbach), technically speaking this refers to the shift in authentic cadence from dominant to expectant tonic in harmony, and the motion from approach notes to target notes in melody (Vuust & Kringelbach). In short, this means that musical syntax has a direct relationship with musical anticipation (Vuust & Kringelbach).

It is proposed that many musical emotions are either caused by, or fulfilled by musical expectations (Steinbeis, Koelsch & Sloboda, 2006) and it is these which play a prominent role in producing feelings of contentment, satisfaction or disappointment (Steinbeis et al, 2006). In his book Sweet Anticipation, Huron labels five expectation related emotional response systems in his theory of musical expectation, they are

  • Imagination Response - refers to the human capacity to imagine events and to experience responses from these events
  • Tension Response - refers to the need to be prepared for future events and to squander energy by being over prepared
  • Prediction Response - how the person predicts the future events
  • Reaction Response
  • Appraisal Response - both these final responses refer to the outcomes and consequences of events (Clarke, 2008)

In order to understand how this theory works, it is important to note that the single most important factor underlying all of this is "pleasure" and the fundamental role that it plays (Clarke, 2008). In terms of musical expectation/anticipation and how this relates to emotion, when a person expects a certain thing to occur at a specific point in time and then this occurrence happens it elicits a certain pleasurable or emotional response within the individual because it confirms their original prediction (Clarke). For example, peoples reaction to the experience of certain events such as positive reactions to something that is pleasant, or negative to something that is unpleasant, these occur in a relatively fast manner and do so without the awareness of the conscious, which is then followed by a slower response that is mediated by the conscious awareness (Clarke). We can take the example of hearing a familiar tune on the radio, or on a cd or portable music device, the occurrence of this familiar tune can trigger a nostalgic response, or any other type of emotional response and is then followed for example by a slow feeling of frustration as the listener struggles to remember where the song came from or where it was last heard (Clarke)

For the listener, the implicit expectations that one has about what will happen within the musical piece itself and whether the criteria are met to satisfy these expectations induce either relaxation or tension (Steinbeis et al, 2006) and can usually come about through an implicit knowledge of rules about a specific type of music and a repeated exposure to it as such (Steinbeis et al). Of particular interest in this area is the effect of harmonic violations and their ability to induce emotional responses, it is also important to note that emotional responses are not only evoked by harmonic violations but also by rythmn and melody. Harmonic violations are simpler because they can be quantified for easily by theoretical musical terms (Steinbeis et al) and also because Harmonic expectation does not require a conscious awareness or knowledge by the listener, as it arises through the implicit processing of harmonic relations (Steinbeis et al, 2006). As such, the harmonic distance between two keys has a direct relationship to the tension contained within the music as chords Further away from the tonal root intitate the perception of tension as these expected harmonic events are suspended (Steinbeis et al), this tension within the music can then be said to be related to the felt emotion from the music (Steinbeis et al). For example, in a study by Bigand, Lerdahl and Pamcutt (1996) listeners were presented with three chords, the initial and root chord were then separated from each other by a separate chord consisting of a varying harmonic distance from that of the root chord. The participants were then asked to give a rating on the amount of tension that was produced by the middle chord, they found that the further the harmonic distance the middle chord was away from the root chords, tension levels would increase (Steinbeis et al). This study is important, because it suggests that there is a relationship between musical expectation/anticipation and emotion.

Musical Tension and Emotional responses[edit | edit source]

Musical tension follows on from musical anticipation as an important part in identiying the relationship between emotion and music. According to a number of musical theorists, music is said to progress dynamically and these changes in dynamics stem from an alternation of stable and unstable chords (Bigand & Parncutt, 1998), with the musical piece that ends on an unstable chord evoking the feeling that there should be a continuation of this dynamic sequence, and in contrast the piece that ends on a stable chord indicates that thi dynamic process has reached some sort of conclusion or arrival (Bigand & Parncutt). According to Bigand and Parncutt, when the a western culture musical piece is heard, it activates the listeners implicit knowledge of tonal hierachies, which the tonal functions of a musical event are inferred. As such, the cognitive representation of these tonal hierarchies are typically conceived as being a multi-dimensional space in which events of hierarchial importance are grouped closely together, thus the spatial representation of such events creates musical tension from which a given chord is assumed to be related to its distance from the instanciated tonic (Bigand & Parncutt). This leads on to Lerdahls Tonal Pitch Space Theory, by which it is said that the perceived musical tension may be governed at a cognitive level, the model predicts that the smaller the tonal distance in pitch space between two events, the smaller the percieved musical tension is on the second event (Bigand & Parncutt).

A number of studies have shown the correlation between the emotional feelings of a listener relative to the amount of perceived tension within the music (Steinbeis et al, 2006). In a study conducted by Krumhansl and Schenck (1997), participant's were asked to use a foot pedal to continuously rate the amount of tension and the expressed emotion within the music, the foot pedal indicated the strength of the participant's response. Krumhansl & Schenck found that there was a strong correlation between on both a moment to moment level, and on the whole piece itself. In another separate study by Krumhansl and Schenck, psycho-physiological reactions were also measured when participants were exposed to emotional musical pieces of varying emotional content. The participants were then asked to rate these emotional and tension levels in the music, with the results showing that there was a correlation between the dominant mood of the music and higher tension levels (Krumhansl and Schenk, 1997)(Steinbeis et al). The results suggested that there was a positive link between perception of tension and emotion within the music (Steinbeis et al).

In another study by Sloboda (1991), participants were required to identify specific passages within musical compositions which evoked emotional responses and physiological responses. The study found that physiological responses such as "heart racing" tend to be linked with the event occurring earlier than was expected, and that new or unprepared harmonies results in reactions such as shivers and pilo-erections (Sloboda)(Steinbeis et al). The results from the study suggested that emotional and physiological response can be elicited when unexpected events occur in music (Steinbeis et al, 2006).

Summary[edit | edit source]

In summary, the relationship between music and emotion is one that is not very well understood in the greater society from a theoretical standpoint. This chapter has addressed two major areas of focus:

  • How does music influence emotion
  • Bridging the gap between emotion and music - the underlying theory

It has been learnt that music has a direct relationship in evoking certain emotions within the listener. These evoked emotions are varying and cover a broad continuum of human emotions, ranging from joyfulness and positivity to sadness and nostalgia. Furthermore, with some of these emotional reponses also come physiological responses such as, heart racing, shivers, lower blood pressure, increase blood pressure, skin temperature changes, nervousness, and increased rates of breathing. These psycho-physiological responses show a link between music and how it makes the listener feel. The section discussed the importance of music in our day to day lives, and how it influences us and also a brief history of its cultural significance, in particular its use to evoke emotion in those during the Civil Rights Movement, allowing people to listen and take action.

The latter end of the chapter covered the scientific theory, in particular musical tension and anticipation and how harmonic structures and theoretical music structures generate and sustain emotions within the listener. Musical anticipation covered the expectation of the arrvial of a certain event within the musical structure which either confirms or denies ones original expectations, resulting in generated emotional responses. Tension in music covered the area of how chord structures generate tension within the music, which in turn influenced the lissteners emotive state.

These two areas of focus within the chapter have attempted to explain the phenomenon of the relationship between music and emotive reponses both from a theoretical standpoint and also from the viewpoint that music is just as important in our lives as water is to living. It is a universal language, transcending all cultures and barriers, bringing people together from every corner of the globe. For some it is a way of life, it is who they are and defines who they will be, for others it makes them feel positive, and others upset sad or nostalgic.

Music is the soundtrack to our lives, so press play...

Activities-Putting it into the real world[edit | edit source]

This section is aimed at being food for thought, after reflecting on what has been read throughout the chapter and with a knowledge of the relationship between music and emotions, have a watch of these couple of videos and see if they change how you feel

Please watch this (2min 4 sec) video, and see if it affects/changes/alters your mood/emotion The music will change intermittently

Dare you not to smile

The Pogues - Love You Till The End

Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody

If you have watched any of these, how did they make you feel? These are just mere random examples, but the next time you listen to something that brings upon an emotion make sure you think about why? Do you feel it relates to you, or your current stage in your life? Does it bring upon nostalgia? Remorse? Happiness? Positivity?

References[edit | edit source]

Ball, P. (2010). One world under a groove. New Scientist, 206(2759), 30-33. Retrieved from

Bigand, E., & Parncutt, R. (1999). Perceiving musical tension in long chord sequences. Psychological Research, 62(4), 237. Retrieved from

Bigand, E., Parncutt, R., & Lerdahl, F. (1996). Perception of musical tension in short chord sequences: The influence of harmonic function, sensory dissonance, horizontal motion, and musical training. Perception & Psychophysics, 58, 125–141

Blood, A.J., Zatorre, R.J. (2001). Intensely pleasureable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America, 98(20), 11818-11823. doi:10.1073/pnas/191355898

Blood, A.J., Zatorre, R.J., Bermudez, P., Evans, A.C. (1999) Emotional responses to pleasant and unpleasant music correlate with activity in paralimbic brain regions. Nature Neuroscience, 2(4) 382-387

Clarke, E. (2008). Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation – By David Huron. Music Analysis, 27(2), 389-392. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2249.2009.00288.x

Krumhansl, C. L. (2002). Music: A Link Between Cognition and Emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 11(2), 45. Retrieved from

Krumhansl, C. L., & Schenck, D. L. (1997). Can dance reflect the structural and expressive qualities of music? A perceptual experiment on Balanchine’s choreography of Mozart’s Divertimento No. 15. Musicae Scientiae, 1, 63–85

Leung, A., & Kier, C. (2008). Music preferences and civic activism of young people. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(4), 445-460. doi:10.1080/13676260802104790

Rose, L. P. (2007). The Freedom Singers of the Civil Rights Movement: Music Functioning for Freedom. UPDATE: Applications of Research in Music Education, 25(2), 59-68. Retrieved from

Schwartz, K. (2004). Music Preferences, Personality Style, and Developmental Issues of Adolescents. Journal of Youth Ministry, 3(1), 47-64. Retrieved from

Siedliecki, S. L., & Good, M. (2006). Effect of music on power, pain, depression and disability. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 54(5), 553-562. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.2006.03860.x

Sloboda, J. A. (1991). Music structure and emotional response: Some empirical findings. Psychology of Music, 19, 110–120.

Steinbeis, N., Koelsch, S., & Sloboda, J. A. (2006). The Role of Harmonic Expectancy Violations in Musical Emotions: Evidence from Subjective, Physiological, and Neural Responses. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18(8), 1380-1393. Retrieved from

Stewart, K. (2008) How music affects emotion, intelligence and health. Psychology.

VUUST, P., & KRINGELBACH, M. L. (2010). The Pleasure of Making Sense of Music. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 35(2), 166-182. doi:10.1179/030801810X12723585301192

Zangwill, N. (2007). Music, Metaphor, and Emotion. Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, 65(4), 391-400. doi:10.1111/j.1540-594X.2007.00272.x

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