Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Music and the Brain: From Mode to Emotion in Musical Communication


Music and the Brain: From Mode to Emotion in Musical Communication



This video is a lecture given by Steven Brown from McMaster University as part of the Library of Congress’ Music and the Brain lecture series. The video includes both Dr. Brown’s prepared lecture as well as the ensuing question and answer period. Dr. Brown’s lecture is entitled “From Mode to Emotion in Musical Communication” and addresses the topic of why we experience emotion when we listen to music, beginning with the psychology of emotion.

Emotions are about something; they are an appraisal or evaluation of a stimulus. It is this stimulus that differentiates emotions from moods, which are objectless. There are three dimensions of emotion; valence (positive or negative), intensity (amount of arousal), and focus (what the emotions are about).

Dr. Brown presents the theory of “basic emotions” and explains the problems he sees with this view. These problems include the idea that the view is one dimensional in that it ignores valence and intensity, that it underestimates the number of human emotions (focusing on 5-10 whereas emotion psychologists suggest there are hundreds), and that it places the greatest importance on facial expression, which among other issues, does not translate well to music whereas sound of voice creates a much better parallel. The final problem that Dr. Brown raises with this theory is that it does not consider the connection between emotion and cognition.

As an alternative to the “basic emotions” theory, Dr. Brown suggests the Clore/Ortony theory of emotion. This theory is based on the idea that there are three major objects of appraisal. The first object consists of outcomes of events and deals with whether or not goals are met. Dr. Brown identifies these as motivational or action emotions. The second object of appraisal consists of the aspects of objects, and addresses the perceiver’s likes or dislikes. According to this theory, these emotions are called aesthetic emotions. Finally, there are actions of agents, dealing with the approval or disapproval of the perceiver. These emotions are referred to as social or moral emotions.

In relating emotion to the arts, Dr. Brown poses the question, “To what extent do art works induce emotion in perceivers vs. do they simply represent emotion?” Induced emotions are true or real emotions which we experience, while represented emotions are not true emotions but rather the emotions the music expresses, and thus are cognitive representations of emotion.

Artworks express emotion which the perceiver must interpret in order to understand. Additionally, when artwork is appreciated, it elicits an aesthetic response in the perceiver (which corresponds to the “aspect of objects” category described earlier). By means of empathy, an artwork can also induce the same emotion in the perceiver as it expresses, but this is less common. Usually, the perceiver recognizes the emotion without actually experiencing the emotion. Finally, artworks can generate moral responses and thereby, emotions. The dominant emotion experienced by the perceiver, however, is the aesthetic emotion.

Music is more limited than other forms of art in the types of emotion it can express. Unlike other art forms which can express all three types of emotions mentioned (outcome, aesthetic, and moral), music is most effective in conveying outcome emotions, and perhaps to a lesser extent, aesthetic emotions (if one considers being beautiful as expressing beauty). By music’s ability to convey positive or negative emotions, and thus act as a pure valence marker, music is capable of representing a sense of either positivity or negativity with whatever it is associated with. As a result, we see music primarily in the role of serving non-musical entities as different as advertisements and religion.

When music is expressing emotion, it does so by two main, independent mechanisms, which Dr. Brown identifies as generalized arousal mechanisms (which signal emotional intensity) and contrastive scales (to signal valence), the latter being unique to music. The generalized arousal mechanisms are virtually identical between music and speech and similar to gesture, and employ the three qualities of register, tempo and volume.

In summary, the primary induced emotional response by music is an aesthetic response while the primary expressed or represented emotions are “outcome” emotions (happy/sad).


As performers, I feel that most of our efforts in learning music go into trying to identify what emotions are being expressed in the music and exploring how best we can express these emotions through our performance. Consequently, when I think of emotions in music, I think of the emotions being represented by the music. I found it quite interesting to listen to this lecture and hear the idea that the predominant emotions induced in the perceiver are aesthetic emotions, relating to the perceiver’s like or dislike of the music. It does make sense that in taking in a piece of music, our primary response would be aesthetic, but I feel that I sometimes overlook that basic response when thinking about emotions in music.

I wonder how this increased awareness of the dominance of aesthetic emotions could positively impact how I perform music. I toyed with the idea of focusing my attention on trying to make the music “likeable.” It initially seemed like an artificial and also superficial aim that was bound to fail. The way we perceive things varies tremendously between individuals as do our likes and dislikes.

Ultimately though, I believe that most often, what we are doing when we learn music is trying to find a way to make people like the music, beginning with ourselves, and then often extending to our teachers or coaches. I believe that liking music is not the same as enjoying it, as music representing tremendous pain may prove to be difficult and not particularly enjoyable to listen to, though we like it for this very fact. What we are usually striving for, in trying to find the best way of expressing the emotions represented in the music, or showing certain elements of form, is to create a product that the audience can relate to and understand, and because of this, like.

I watched this lecture a number of weeks before attending Dr. David Huron’s lecture on major and minor scales and their psychological impacts. In taking in Dr. Huron’s lecture, I was frequently reminded of ideas raised by Dr. Brown and wished there was a sequel to Dr. Brown’s lecture in which he could explore the neuroscience behind some of these shared ideas.

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...". The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, "No more." If someone were to say these words slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

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, music theorist