Music and Emotion

Music and Emotion… Lauren’s reading group report

The second official meeting of EMPRes focused on the topic of Music and Emotion, with Juslin and Vastfjall’s 2008 paper stimulating discussion. Musicologists, psychologists and linguists contributed to a critique of the current view of musical emotion.

First, the unsystematic use of stimuli in research exploring musical emotion was noted, alongside the consideration that emotions induced by music can be elicited in a multitude of ways – a detail that is ordinarily overlooked and uncontrolled. The context of this paper, as a response to this situation, was acknowledged and the need for a theory of emotion induction from music accepted. The paper was approached with enthusiasm

In the paper, the six main mechanisms through which musical emotion is elicited were identified as:

  1. Brain stem reflex

Emotion induced by fundamental acoustic characteristics (e.g. sudden/loud/dissonant tones)

Induces: General arousal

Volitional influence: Low

  1. Evaluative Conditioning

Emotion induced because of repeated pairing with other positive/negative stimuli

Induces: Basic emotions

Volitional influence: Low

  1. Emotional Contagion

Emotion induced from perception then mimicry of the music’s emotional expression

Induces: Basic emotions

Volitional influence: Low

  1. Visual Imagery

Emotion induced from the visual landscape conjured up during listening

Induces: All possible emotions

Volitional influence: High

  1. Episodic Memory

Emotion induced by bringing a particular memory to mind (‘they’re playing our song’)

Induces: All possible emotion (esp. nostalgia)

Volitional influence: Medium

  1. Musical Expectancy

Emotion induced by syntactic expectation violation/build-up etc.

Induces: Surprise, awe, pleasure, thrills, disappointment, hope, anxiety

Volitional influence: Low

An initial response to the paper related to its remit, and the clarification that it only refers to the listener’s perspective. However, consideration of context was thought to be lacking. For example, how does the listener’s experience differ between a live or recorded performance? How does being in a concert hall as opposed to on the train with an iPod effect the emotions induced by the music?  Also, it was noted that the paper took an abstract view of the musical Work, without acknowledging this bias. Non-Western musics sometimes have much more fluid boundaries between listening and performance, or music and language – with laments (in which music mutates to sobbing and vice versa being a prime example). The other emotions induced by music, particularly in the performer or composer, were therefore omitted from Juslin and Vastfjall’s discussion. Through our discussion it became clear that the commonly noted ‘sense of belonging’, or ‘sense of achievement’ brought about by performance did not fit the mechanisms theorized by the authors. One of the main ways in which people experience emotion in music, as a feature of social cohesion, therefore, was unaccounted for.

Next considered was whether music induces an ‘emotion’ or ‘makes me feel’. It was generally agreed that musical emotions were were qualitatively similar to standard emotions and were likely to be induced by the same processes, but one question was raised:

‘If Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde prelude makes you feel comparable to the way that a break-up feels, does a break-up make you feel the same emotion as when you listen to Tristan and Isolde?’

However, Raymond MacDonald’s research into pain and musical emotion was raised as a counter-argument.

Several questions were also raised about the specific mechanisms themselves:

  • Is episodic memory a form of conditioning?
  • Is enculturation related to evaluative conditioning?
  • Is the emotional contagion description suitable? Does music really elicit emotion because of a ‘voice-like’ quality?
  • Does the visual imagery mechanism relate to pictorial or propositional imagery? How do metaphors fit? Is this just ‘internal representation’?
  • Should the six mechanisms be divided into categories of universal/culturally induced emotions in contrast to personal/experience-based emotions

It was agreed that music uses general mechanisms to induce , and that Juslin and Vastfjall provided a good opening theory to be refined over time following research and critiques. It was noted, however, that the paper seemed to understand music’s aim to be to evoke an emotional response, which may be true of the last few centuries of Western classical music, but is not essential to other types of  music. Thinking of music as an abstract work seems implicit in this paper, and engagement with this issue was identified as essential for a comprehensive understanding of musical emotion.

About Nikki

Nikki is Senior Lecturer in Music at Edinburgh University.
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