Saturday, December 27, 2008

Musical Structure and Physiological Measures of Emotion

Gomez, P. & Danuser, B. (2007). Relationships Between Musical Structure and Psychophysiological Measures of Emotion. Emotion, 7, 377-387.

By: Andrea Botticelli

In music research, emotional reactions to music are usually divided into a distinction between perceived emotions that reside in the music itself and felt emotions that are induced in the listeners (377). These two cases may involve different psychological mechanisms and be associated with different physiological correlates. This study is one of very few experiments that explores the relationship between musical structure and experienced emotions, as opposed to perceived emotions (377).

The study of emotion is usually measured in terms of valence and arousal. These can also be used as fundamental dimensions to study musical emotions. The current emotion/music literature shows that increased tempo is accompanied by increased breathing rate and heart rate; however, there have not been any studies that attempt to study the affects of specific musical elements on physiological arousal. This study examined emotional responses to music using 11 musical features. These features included sound intensity, tempo, rhythm, accentuation, rhythmic articulation, melodic direction, pitch level, pitch range, mode, complexity, and consonance. They were all found to be significant to the subjective emotional experience (381).

The results showed that melodic direction and pitch level are least associated with specific emotional responses. Valence was most strongly associated with mode, rhythmic articulation, and harmonic complexity. Finally, arousal was most strongly associated with accentuation, tempo, and rhythmic articulation.

Significantly, there were a large number of similarities between musical structure and experienced emotions and musical structure and perceived emotions (381). For instance, the major mode was associated with positive valence. Also, sound intensity was correlated with high arousal. Staccato articulation also induced high arousal while legato articulation led to low arousal (382).

In short, “the internal structure of the music played a primary role in the induction of the emotions in comparison with extramusical factors” (382-383). This may be more pronounced for the feeling of arousal than valence. Also, musical features such as fast tempo and high loudness correspond with events of high energy. Stern named these features “vitality affects” (383). Music that induced faster breathing and higher minute ventilation, skin conductance, and heart rate was fast, accentuated, and staccato. Finally, rhythmic aspects seem to be the major determinants of physiological responses to music.

One of the most fundamental questions in music theory is to try to discover where emotions reside. Eduard Hanslick and a century of post-Hanslickian theorists argued that emotion cannot reside in absolute music. Their purist stance declares that music cannot arouse or represent emotion. More contemporary music theory contends that intrinsic musical features can be meaningful. This theoretical standpoint is termed absolutism, whereby emotion and meaning can be extracted from the musical features themselves as opposed to their extramusical associations. Finally, Peter Kivy’s “enhanced formalism” marries the two stances of formalism and expressionism by arguing that emotional elements reside in the structural elements of music as perceptual properties, such as the redness of an apple or the sad facial expression of a St. Bernard’s face.

I have always adhered to the absolutist viewopoint and tried to find meaning within the interplay of musical elements as opposed to their programmatic associations. For music that includes a program, musicians must still understand how the musical elements convey the story to achieve an expressive performance. Ultimately, it is possible to be moved by the same music without knowing what it should be “about” and that is music’s intrinsic, immediate and fundamental expressive power.

I believe that musical elements can evoke and induce emotional experience, but what are these elements? It is very intriguing to read about how scientists are trying to dissect and study physiological responses to each musical element. One wrinkle in that method that I wonder about is the impossibility of separating the affects of specific musical elements. For instance, the physiological affect brought about by rhythm would be further enhanced by its accentuation and tempo, so which is the most dominant feature correlated with physiological arousal? Nevertheless, I applaud the topic and the effort to study musical emotions in a systematic and scientifically reliable way.

No comments: