Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Music: A Link Between Cognition and Emotion

Krumhansl, C.L. (2002). Music: A Link Between Cognition and Emotion. American Psychological Society, 45-50.
By: Andrea Botticelli

The study of musical emotions is currently an active field in psychology. In this article, Krumhansl summarizes research in the ongoing investigation of how musical emotion relates to the cognition of musical structure (45.) A fundamental question is: what is it in the music that causes emotion? Also, are musical emotions like other emotions?

Background research in this field includes the classic study by Hevner (1936). The study was an attempt to precisely describe the musical structures that produce musical emotions. There was a remarkable agreement when listeners had to choose emotional adjective descriptions for musical excerpts. Leonard Meyer, a pioneer in the field of music cognition, theorized that expectations play a central psychological role in musical emotions. Subsequent research uses the concept of musical tension to link cognition of musical structures with musical emotions (46).

It has been shown that music can be reliably described at the level of basic emotions. For instance, there is general consensus that sad excerpts feature slow tempi, minor harmonies, and fairly constant ranges of pitch and dynamics. Fearful excerpts display rapid tempi, dissonant harmonies, and large variations of dynamics and pitch. Finally, happy excerpts employ relatively rapid tempi, dancelike rhythms, major harmonies, and relatively constant ranges of pitch and dynamics (46).

Krumhansl conducted a comparison of these descriptions with points of tension in the music. Tension correlated most strongly with fear ratings, but also with happy and sad ratings. Thus, tension is a multivalent quality, present in music expressing all three of these basic emotions. Physiological responses of the subjects were also recorded. All musical excerpts produced the same direction of change compared with base levels, indicating that music has an overall effect on emotion physiology. Sad ratings induced changes in heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance and temperature. Fear induced changes in the rate and amplitude of blood flow. Happy music showed changes in respiration. However, the correlations were fairly low (46). The greatest correlation with nonmusical emotions in other studies was seen when the manipulation was extended over time, as in the musical excerpts (47).

In yet another study, listeners heard 8 minutes of the 1st movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in E-flat major, K. 282. Physiological responses to the music were recorded. Another group made perceptual judgments such as how the music is segmented, when new musical ideas are introduced, and the degree of perceived tension. Significantly, tension ratings correlated with heart rate and blood pressure. Also, a number of features covaried with tension, such as pitch height of melody, density of notes, dissonance, and dynamics. More cognitive features included key changes, appearance of chromatic tones, interruption of a harmonic process, and denial of stylistic expectations (47).

Musical theory has always discussed the role of structure, harmonic progression, and non-chord notes to understand musical expression. It seems that the sheer existence of these organizational systems makes each departure from them special and meaningful. For example, in every theory class students are taught how to analyze and compose binary pieces or how to identify symmetrical phrasing. Gifted composers continually break these “rules”, but if they weren’t there as a framework, would the pieces that extend these systems and violate their cohesive structure be as meaningful?

It is fascinating for me to read about methods to assess these qualities scientifically. Also, I am happy (and relieved) to find that psychological testing often confirms theoretical thinking. I think an interesting direction for future research would be to investigate the connection of musical emotion with emotion in other areas of life. Results in this direction might strengthen the importance of music therapy.

1 comment:

willimek said...

Music and Emotions

The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can't convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want any more...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want any more..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.
Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called "lead", "leading tone" or "striving effects". If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change - but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

Further information is available via the free download of the e-book "Music and Emotion - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:


or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:


Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek