Ever listened to a piece of music and felt an intense emotional response? Many of you have probably had such an experience, be it listening to an orchestral piece swell as it reaches the climax, or listening to the latest dance/EDM song on the radio. Listening to music often induces different emotions in different individuals, which begs the question: why does music, which essentially consists of abstract sound sequences, touch us so deeply?
Emotions are commonly described as brief but intense reactions to events in the external or internal environment. Changes to one’s emotions may occur from moment to moment, and these changes can be captured along two dimensions: valence and arousal (Russell, 1980).
Previous studies have attempted to explain why music evokes emotion, as well as why the emotion produced may be of a specific type. The psychological process through which this is achieved is referred to as the underlying mechanism, and numerous mechanisms have been proposed over the last few decades. In an attempt to specify underlying mechanisms under a unified framework, Juslin and Västfjäll (2008) proposed the “BRECVEMA framework”, which currently includes eight different mechanisms.
Brain stem reflex refers to a process where emotions are evoked in the listener when exposed to sudden, loud, dissonant, or accelerating patterns of sound. A famous piece of music which may induce this reaction in a listener is Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 (2nd movement). Brain stem reflexes typically increase arousal and induce feelings of surprise in the listener (Juslin et al., 2014).
Rhythmic entrainment refers to a process where emotions are evoked through rhythms in music. The listener’s internal bodily rhythms, such as their heart rate, adjust towards and “lock in” to a common rhythm (Clayton et al., 2005). The adjusted heart rate can then spread to other components of emotion through “proprioceptive feedback.” Entrainment is enhanced by a marked pulse, evident in techno music, march music, and certain types of film music, such as Hans Zimmer’s No Time for Caution.
Evaluative conditioning refers to a certain aspect of the music, such as the melody, triggering a conditioned response or emotion in the listener. The use of melodic themes to evoke emotions associated with characters or events is a common feature of movie scores. A good example of this would be Rose’s Theme from the film Titanic.
Emotional contagion refers to a process where brain regions associated with premotor representations for vocal sound production respond to certain musical features, as if they were coming from a human voice expressing an emotion. This, therefore, induces emotions in the listener. Emotional contagion is possible since the majority of music heard today consists of vocals, but even voice-like features of a violin or a cello might arouse basic emotions such as sadness in listeners (Juslin et al., 2014).
Visual imagery refers to a process where emotions are evoked in the listener through conjuring of inner images. This is achieved through non-verbal mapping between the metaphoric quality of the music and “image-schemata” grounded in bodily experience (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Images are thus attached and linked to specific segments of music, which could explain why some individuals are able to conjure up music videos in their minds when listening to certain pieces of music.
Episodic memory refers to a process where music induces emotions through evoking a personal memory of a specific event in the person’s life (Baumgartner, 1992). When the memory is evoked, the associated emotion is evoked too. This can bring about feelings of nostalgia, and is suggested to be the most common source of emotion in daily life (Juslin et al., 2008).
Musical expectancy refers to a process where emotions are induced in a listener because a specific feature of the music violates, delays, or confirms the listener’s expectations about how the music will continue. The expectations are based on the listener’s previous experience of the same musical style (Pearce et al., 2010), and violation of expectancies may evoke anxiety, surprise, and thrill (Sloboda, 1991).
Aesthetic judgment refers to a process where emotions are evoked in the listener because of their evaluation of the music’s aesthetic value. Individuals impose their own aesthetic criteria on the piece of music, and decide whether they like it or not. Emotion is a possible additional outcome if the music is judged as extraordinarily good or bad. This mechanism may arouse emotions such as awe (Haidt & Seder, 2009).
In conclusion, different mechanisms can explain how and why individuals feel emotion when listening to music, therefore, before one can understand emotion in any given situation, it is necessary to know which of these mechanisms is in operation. So, the next time you find yourself feeling a surge of emotion when listening to a song, consider the above mechanisms and perhaps you’ll understand the reasons why.
This article was written by Wilson Lim and edited by Tia Foster. Both of them are members of the Bugle Team.
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