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Emotion, Social and behavioural

How does music make you feel?

Zoe Nendick discusses the link between music and emotion.

12 September 2022

Music is a significant part of the everyday lives of many of us – whether you actively choose to listen to it while walking or cooking dinner, or you hear it on the radio, TV or in the background in shops or restaurants. Music can be very powerful. Many of us have put on our favourite song and immediately felt better, or heard a song that made us want to dance, relax, explore, or even cry. How do we choose what to listen to? Why do certain passages of music make us feel a certain way? Can music be inherently happy or sad? Does everyone feel the same when they listen to the same piece of music?

I began to ask these questions when I studied A-level music. I was taught how to harmonise chorales (short, hymn-like passages of music in four parts) in the style of Bach, following various 'rules' such as 'don't double the third' and 'the seventh must always be followed by the tonic'. An even more fundamental 'rule' I learned while growing up was that major music sounds happy and minor music sounds sad. This is probably familiar to you, and I took it for granted until I began to question it in school. I ended up following this curiosity and making music perception the subject of my Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) essay in sixth form, in which I asked to what extent our perception of music is determined by our culture (answer: probably quite a lot).

When I started my music degree, I applied this way of thinking about music – in terms of the emotions it evokes – to all of my work. In my first year, I chose to write an essay about how the music of two Radiohead songs reflected the emotional content of the lyrics, and in my second year I looked at the emotion and meaning behind Muse's album, Drones. (If you haven't listened to the title track of this album, I thoroughly recommend it – I wrote a 4000-word essay in my third year just about that song!)

It wasn't until my final year that I managed to really immerse myself in the field of music and emotion through my dissertation.

From theories to framework

I considered the role of individual differences in determining our emotional response to a piece of music. Most of us will have memories attached to some songs, perhaps of a specific event or period of time, or about a person or place, and these can have a strong impact on how a song makes us feel (Belfi et al., 2016). I also discussed the effects of the listening context on our emotional response – in particular, our mood at the time of listening (e.g. Hunter et al., 2011). I have since discovered that the enjoyment of music is associated with reward areas in the brain. For example, musical 'chills' – highly pleasurable responses to music – have been associated with activity in the ventral striatum, amygdala, and medial prefrontal cortex (Blood & Zatorre, 2001), and the nucleus accumbens (Salimpoor et al., 2011).

Music has been studied for literally thousands of years – Pythagoras worked out a tuning system based on the perfect fifth, whose two notes have a frequency ratio of 3:2, and the octave, where the frequency ratio is 2:1. Over the last 70 years or so, there has been growing academic interest in the relationship between music and emotion – one of the most significant earlier works being Leonard Meyer's book, Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956). Meyer proposed that we feel emotions in response to the harmonic progressions of the music, and to the extent each note or chord fulfils our expectations. A number of theories have since been proposed to explain how music induces emotions in the listener, and to develop Meyer's theory (e.g. Steinbeis et al., 2006). For my dissertation, I focused on the work of Patrik Juslin and his team, who have attempted to draw together a number of different theories in one framework.

Juslin is currently one of the leading researchers in the field of emotional responses to music, and I was particularly inspired by his work of the last 20 years or so. In his book Musical Emotions Explained (2019), he notes that, as well as generally focusing on Western classical music (Eerola & Vuoskoski, 2013), which does not necessarily represent the musical interests of most Western listeners, music psychologists have previously lacked a theoretical framework of psychological mechanisms underlying emotional responses to music, with which to guide empirical research. This has formed a key part of the research of Juslin and his colleagues, many of whom work at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. Music-induced emotions are thought to arise as a result of a complex interaction between the listener, the music, and the situation (Juslin, 2011), and a theoretical framework has now been developed by Juslin and colleagues to explain how music induces emotions, known as the BRECVEMA framework (Juslin & Västfjäll, 2008; Juslin, 2013). BRECVEMA is an acronym for eight psychological mechanisms, in the order in which they are theorised to have developed throughout evolution (see box).

An evolving area

The study of music-induced emotions using the BRECVEMA framework is at a very early stage, and there is much scope for further research about these mechanisms and their interactions. There is also scope for research about emotional responses to music from the perspective of the personality and individual differences. For example, it is suggested that those higher in neuroticism are more prone to experiencing nostalgia when listening to music than those lower in this trait (Barrett et al., 2010).

Furthermore, a number of factors pertaining to the listening context may affect music-induced emotions. These include external factors relating to the social and physical environment, such as the social context (e.g. Egermann et al., 2011), and whether the music is self-selected (Eerola & Vuoskoski, 2013). There are also internal factors, such as the listener's emotional state (e.g. Hunter et al., 2011), their attentiveness to the music (e.g. Sagha et al., 2015), and listening motives (Juslin & Laukka, 2004).

As our means of music consumption continue to evolve, it will be interesting to see how research progresses. Think about how you primarily listen to music now compared to 10, 20, or 30 years ago – many of us now use streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music. These are full of playlists created for specific moods and genres or based on specific artists; the songs we listen to can be chosen for us. While this is not a new concept in the digital age – songs played on the radio have been chosen for us for decades – streaming services have made this process more personalised and automatic. Spotify even creates a playlist based on any one song. We can listen to a huge number of artists and songs, sometimes just once and never again. There is no longer the need to make a deliberate choice to purchase a specific CD by a specific artist. Listening to music in this way may impact how connected we feel to the artist. I have some playlists with hundreds of songs, and I would struggle to name the artists of some songs just by listening, even though I may have listened to them ten or so times. Of course, there are individual differences in how we choose what to listen to, but it is interesting to think about how this might have changed for you over time.

Applying music

The study of emotional responses to music is closely linked to the field of music therapy. The ability to predict the emotional effects of certain styles or features of music can inform the practice of music therapists. For example, major music seems to be more effective at relieving stress than minor music (Suda et al., 2008). Music's ability to evoke autobiographical memories has also been used in music therapy, for example to improve memory recall in people with Alzheimer's disease (Fraile et al., 2019). Music can also have pain-relieving effects for individuals recovering from surgery (see Finn & Fancourt, 2018, for a review).

There is also a less benign side to music and emotion research – its uses in consumer behaviour. There are the obvious uses of this research such as by Spotify to generate personalised playlists. But background music can affect consumption at the levels of cognition, emotion and behaviour (see Jain & Bagdare, 2011 for a review). Music is also used in advertising for several purposes, including to facilitate implicit learning of the advert (e.g. Alexomanolaki et al., 2007).

But music does not cause significant emotional responses in everyone. People who derive very little or no pleasure from listening to music are said to have music anhedonia. They can still perceive the fundamentals of the music, such as the key and harmonic progression (Satoh et al., 2011). Congenital music anhedonia is estimated to occur in approximately 5 per cent of the general population (Mas-Herrero et al., 2013), whereas acquired music anhedonia is limited to just a handful of case reports (e.g. Griffiths et al., 2004). At the other end of the scale is musicophilia, where people derive an unusually high amount of pleasure from listening to music (Mas-Herrero et al., 2013).

Now, over to you. Why not think about your music listening habits and choices as you go about your day. How do you choose what to listen to? What emotions or memories does it evoke? What is it about the music that makes you feel this way? Does a particular song always make you feel the same way? Perhaps you will notice something you hadn't before.

Zoe Nendick completed a MSc Psychology (conversion) at the University of Nottingham in 2021, and now works with London Youth Choirs.


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