Friday, December 26, 2008

An Experience Sampling Study of Emotional Reactions to Music

Juslin, Patrik N. and Daniel Vastfjall (2008).
An Experience Sampling Study of Emotional Reactions to Music: Listener, Music, and Situation.
American Psychological Association: 2008, Vol. 8, No. 5, 668–683.

This experiment was conducted in Uppsala University, Sweden, and used the experience sampling method to gather information about daily activities, emotional states, and prevalence of musical and non-musical stimuli from 32 college students during a period of 14 days. The participants had to carry a palmtop computer for two weeks. When the palmtop emitted sound signals (seven times per day between 9am and 11pm), participants had to answer questions about their latest experience, thus permitting the researchers to observe their lives in the most natural and spontaneous condition possible. The questions could be divided into three categories: 1) the experienced emotion; 2) the situation; 3) the characteristics of musical-emotion episodes.
The purpose of the experiment was to investigate emotional reactions to music as they naturally occurred in daily life. The researchers wanted to study the prevalence of different musical emotions and how they were related to various factors in the listener, the music, and the emotion. They also compared the prevalence of musical emotions with that of non-musical emotions.
The findings of this study showed that the majority of participants have experienced musical emotions when music was present in their situations, which occurred frequently when they were alone at home. Calm-contentment was a commonly felt emotion in these episodes, where most participants have chosen the music themselves. Some common motives for participants to listen to music were: 1) to get some company; 2) to get energized; 3) to relax; 4) to pass time.
To a great degree, the prevalence of specific musical emotions depended on the situation and the listener. In company of friends and others, the musical emotions such as happiness-elation, pleasure-enjoyment, and anger-irritation occurred often, where as calm-contentment, nostalgia-longing, and sadness-melancholy occurred frequently in solitude.
The researchers acknowledged one main limitation of this study: it was based only on self-reports. Nevertheless, its findings showed that emotional responses to music depend on complex interactions between the listener, the music, and the situation. The usage of representative samples of musical events was strongly recommended for future attempts to estimate the prevalence of musical emotions in everyday life.

Review & Reflection
Throughout the course of human history, music has been acknowledged as a significant tool for regulating our emotional and spiritual state. It has physiological, psychological, and inside-out impacts on our body and the latest scientific, technological, and neurological discoveries have been applied in the attempts to explain this phenomenon.
This particular study observes the daily activities, emotional states, and the (side) effects of music in a person's everyday life. When reading this report, I cannot help being biased and thinking that this is not about music and its power to affect our emotions, but about a person's daily life and the small role that music may play in a social context. In this case, why can music not be substituted with sports, reading, resting, knitting, or eating in the same experiment? How is music differentiated from other daily activities in this setting? What is this study trying to prove to non-musicians, as well as to musicians? (For a musician like myself, the findings of this study are obvious and common sense.)
Certainly, this study provides one of many, many beginnings and can pave the way for limitless future developments. Personally, I would be interested to see: 1) the effects of different musical samples on different and the same participants; 2) differentiation between passive and active listening.
Our emotional reactions to music depends a great deal on our exposure to different styles of music (see Schellenberg's review of this report: "The role of exposure in emotional responses to music (2008)" in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31, 594-595 from and unfamiliarity, familiarity, and over-familiarity can all affect our response to a piece of music. On the other hand, in an environment where music is all pervasive (as background music in various locations, or dramatic elements in theatres, movies, and multi-media), it is possible to tune out of music that surrounds us and not listen to anything attentively. Is there a difference between the effects of attentive and absent-minded listening? How much does awareness and intent, or the lack of such, affect the outcome of a small act like switching on the radio/CD player/i-pod and listening to something? How much do we allow ourselves to probe into unfamiliar musical and emotional territories and be available to acknowledge musically evoked emotions? From that perspective, emotional responses to music can be both voluntary and involuntary, depending on individuals and their decisions.

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