Monday, December 29, 2008

Emotions in Strong Experiences with Music: The SEM Project

Gabrielsson, A. (2001). Emotions in strong experiences with music. In P. Juslin & J. Sloboda (Eds), Music and emotion. Theory and research (pp. 431-449). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Music listening or performing can elicit physical responses such as thrills, shivers, and changes in heart rate. Hence, “music may be a common trigger of extraordinary experiences” (433). The strong experiences of music project (SEM) collected multiple descriptions of strong emotional experiences with music for content analysis. The data collection was from over 400 people from different gender, occupation, age, and musical preferences (434).
The emotional aspects of SEM were divided into four categories: intense emotions, positive emotions, negative emotions, and mixtures of emotions/conflicting emotions (435). Physical responses included uninhibited crying, shivers/chills, changed breathing, and heart rate (441). “Quasi-physical feelings” were also described like feeling weightless, as if the music took command of the body. Other descriptions included living for what is happening right now, or feeling like the universe is in perfect harmony (442).
The factors influencing SEM have been divided into three categories: musical, personal, and situational categories. Musical excerpts that elicit strong emotional experiences can come from any genre including classical music, pop/rock, jazz, and folk music. Negative reaction factors include high volume, heavy drumming, a screaming saxophone, or a monotonous and howling song (442). For example, a report described an extremely dissonant fortissimo chord in Mahler’s 10th Symphony that explodes unexpectedly (443). Moreover, participants described more general musical elements such as timbre, loudness (dynamics), tempo (such as accelerando), mode (like the transition from minor to major), rhythm, beautiful melodies and harmonies, thick texture, and building tension followed by relaxation (443).
Personal factors that influence strong musical/emotional experiences include physical state, such as whether or not a listener was feeling well, rested, tired, or ill. Also, cognitive factors include expectations, attentiveness, receptivity, sensitivity, open-mindedness, having heard or performed the music earlier, or whether or not the listener was familiar with musical style. Emotional state was also an important factor, namely whether the person was in low or high spirits, calm, relaxed, nervous, depressed, or in crisis (444). Finally, personality-related variables such as temperament, maturity, and disposition all affected the probability of strong emotional experiences with music (445).
Situational factors included the physical space and acoustical conditions of the location of listening or performing. Also, the social aspect of performing alone or together with others influenced these experiences, along with the size of the audience. Additionally, strong emotional experiences with music were more likely to happen on special occasions, such as vacations or performing in another country. Performance conditions that influenced peak experiences included whether or not the music was well rehearsed or under-rehearsed.
Hence, musical factors are only part of the equation that can influence strong experiences in music. The researches concluded that “in many cases….personal and/or situational factors are in fact more important than the music in question”. Moreover, they argued that it may be more accurate to describe these moments as “strong experiences of and with music or strong experiences in connection with music”. Finally, the “link between cognition and emotion is blurred” because one can’t determine if SEM is a direct, immediate emotion or the result of a situational appraisal (447). It is equally difficult to make the distinction between emotions expressed in music and emotions aroused by music. Nevertheless, the “power of music” has considerable validity (448).

I can vividly remember the musical peak experiences of my life and, looking back, I can see that they were a combination of strong musical factors combined with many other physical and situational influences.
One experience was when I visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome when I was 20. I am not particularly religious, but I love visiting churches and I have often felt that their beauty and awesome architecture must have really inspired belief in churchgoers! While gaping at the marble, gazing upward toward the heavens and reflecting on the strength of belief that made possible the building of these monuments over hundreds of years, a choir entered singing Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. The sublimity and religious faith that I felt in the music moved me to my innermost depths and I started to cry uncontrollably. I will always remember that moment.
Another musical moment was at a music summer festival when I was 16 in Whistler, B.C. I was so honoured to have been accepted to this small program of 10 pianists and I worked and prepared harder than ever before. I was in a state of heightened alertness and nervousness. We had daily coachings (like performances) and master classes. I was pushed and inspired by the other pianists. We formed intense friendships in a short time. Finally, on the last three days we took a funicular up to the top of a mountain and performed chamber music together. The hall had vast windows that overlooked the mountains, stretching as far as one could see. I will always remember the natural light in the hall and the uplifting feeling of the panorama that lingered with me when I played.
I think in both of these circumstances, I was already in a heightened state of excitement and anticipation, but I don’t think I would have experienced such strong emotions without the accompaniment of the music. It was as though music infused these moments with a deeper layer of meaning, making the experience infinitely more sublime.

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