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The 8 Components of Musical Emotion

Emotion is a fundamental aspect of musical experience.

Key points

  • Listening to music is one of the most enjoyable activities of daily life.
  • Music is remarkable in its ability to evoke profound emotions in listeners.
  • Musical emotion is one of the primary motives for engaging in music listening.

Listening to music is quite common in our daily life. The most common motive for listening to music is to influence emotions. How does listening to music produce emotions and pleasure in listeners? The following is a list of factors associated with emotion in music.

1. Musical pleasure.

Music mostly makes us feel good. The enjoyment of music appears to involve the same pleasure center in the brain as other forms of pleasure, such as food, sex, and drugs (Juslin 2019). Positive feelings tend to broaden our mindset in ways that are beneficial to health and creative thinking. This explains the potential mental health benefits of music. Moreover, music-evoked emotions predict whether individuals will decide to buy a song. The pleasure of music may also explain why the religious leaders were concerned that music could weaken human moral fiber (Gioia, 2019).

2. Musical surprise.

Music can be experienced as pleasurable both when it fulfills and violates expectations (e.g., unexpected harmonies, or the entry of a solo voice). The more unexpected the musical ingredients, the more surprising is the musical experience. We enjoy the disruptions in musical patterns. For example, you may become startled and surprised by the loud noise during a live concert (or the sound effects in movie). It is like when someone creeps up behind you and says ‘Boo’.

3. Appraisal.

Emotion is an evaluative attitude. The evaluation of music gives rise to emotions such as pleasure or displeasure. For instance, nostalgia is the most frequent emotion evoked by music. Many listeners use music to remind themselves of the valued past events (e.g., the song by Paul McCartney’s “yesterday” is considered a jewel of modern nostalgia).

4. Action tendency.

Music often creates strong action tendencies to move in coordination with the music (e.g., dancing, foot-tapping). For example, classical music has been used as a form of crowd control, such as in shopping malls to deter teenagers, or in public spaces to drive the homeless away. If you don’t identify with the music that is playing in a given space, then the space becomes an unpleasant place for your taste. However, the same space welcomes classical music lovers.

5. Being in sync.

Being in sync with music is a source of pleasure. It is no accident that dance-like music makes people happy because it is easy to entrain (attune) to its rhythmic pattern. Our internal rhythms (e.g., heart rate) speed up or slow down to become one with the music. We float and move with the music.

6. Memory.

Memories are one of the important ways in which musical events evoke emotions. A great deal of our musical preferences reflects our individual learning history. For example, some people may have a fond memory associated with Elgar (Pomp and Circumstance) for graduation ceremonies, and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major,” (or Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” in C major) for a wedding. People do not forget these emotional events.

7. Emotional contagion.

Another effect resulting from music is emotional contagion. Music doesn’t only evoke emotions at the individual level, but also at the interpersonal level. When people attend concerts, their emotions are in part influenced by the emotions of other people present. When sports fans sing together, their brains release love hormone (oxytocin) which makes them feel emotional bond with those in their group. That is why nations have national anthems.

8. Imagination.

Imagination refers to mental activity of imagining what is perceived in the music (e.g., a narrative) would be true. For instance, imagining monsters during fear-evoking music enhances fear responses. Imagining nature, such as mountains or fields, enhances our emotional responses to music such as the Four Seasons by Vivaldi. In a high-tech digital age, for some listeners, the easy country melody is a reminder of the ‘good old days.’

In sum, music is capable of inspiring emotions (cry and laughter, and physiological responses). Music can be is used to create an emotional atmosphere of, for example, calming, relaxing, playful, sincere, or intimate.

References

Gioia Ted (2109), Music: A Subversive History. NY: Basic Books.

Juslin PN (2019), Musical Emotions Explained, Oxford University Press.

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