Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Music Structure and Emotional Response: Some Empirical Findings

Sloboda, J.A. (1991). Music Structure and Emotional Response: Some Empirical Findings. Psychology of Music, 19, 110-120.

By: Andrea Botticelli

This study examines the emotional experiences of “thrills” while listening to music. This experience is divided into two categories. The first example can be described as a pleasant physical sensation, often felt as a “shiver” or “tingle” running from the nape of the neck down the spine. The second example of strong emotion involves tears or weeping. From the scientific point of view, it is advantageous to study this response because it is clear, stereotypical, memorable, clearly differentiated, and easily identifiable (110). Moreover, the “thrill” response reflects felt emotion, not judged musical mood (111). Thus, this research focuses on emotional “peaks” by analyzing their nature, frequency of occurrence, and the precise musical events which evoke them (111).

The sample of 83 respondents (the number of replies received from a pool of 500) answered a questionnaire that asked them to rate the occurrence of peak experiences during the past 5 years based on physical criteria. Participants were asked to rate their experiences using twelve physical variables: shivers down the spine, laughter, lump in the throat, tears, goose pimples, racing heart, yawning, pit of stomach sensations, sexual arousal, trembling, flushing/blushing, and sweating. Notably, the most common responses were shivers, laughter, lump in the throat, and tears (112).

Participants were also asked to nominate the works for which they had strong emotional responses. Of the pieces that were nominated, 65 were classified as classical vocal, 28 were popular vocal, 67 examples represented classical instrumental, and 6 were popular instrumental music. (It is important to note that the imbalance toward classical music may have reflected the sample, not necessarily the occurrence of strong emotions). The top five works were: Bach St. Matthew Passion, Mozart Requiem, Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, Bach B minor Mass, and Tchaikovsky Overture to Romeo and Juliet. Interestingly, respondents reported that even after listening to this music upwards of 50 times over 5 years, they still felt strong emotional reactions to the music (113).

Respondents were also asked to try to pinpoint the musical event that elicited the strong response. 57 people responded to this question and all responses except 2 were from performers. 38 musical passages were chosen for structural analysis (all were from classical music because the score had to be available to study). 19 excerpts were examples of purely instrumental music and 17 examples were of vocal music. Content analysis of these emotional moments summarized ten broad groups: harmonic descending cycle of fifths to tonic, melodic appoggiaturas, melodic or harmonic sequence, enharmonic change, harmonic or melodic acceleration to cadence, delay of final cadence, new or unprepared harmony, sudden dynamic or textural change, repeated syncopation, and a prominent event that came earlier than prepared for (114).

The results of the study demonstrate a clear differentiation between musical structures by the physical reactions they provoke. In general, it was shown that tears are most reliably provoked by melodic appoggiaturas and shivers are induced by relatively sudden changes in harmony (114).

The article concludes with the point that these physical responses are part of the innate autonomic response system of all human beings. I’m wondering why all 500 people in the sample did not respond? Perhaps they simply didn’t have experiences of that nature to report?

Similarly, why don’t all of us have these responses to music? One of the possible answers could be the role of learning in music appreciation, even in emotional reaction. Since meaningful musical moments may likely be the result of disturbed expectations, musical syntax must be internalized to appreciate these features. Research has also shown that emotional responses can grow during repeated exposure as one discovers more subtle expressive features in the music (119). This point may demonstrate that music (or we) may always have more to express with each experience of listening or performing it.

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