Music and Emotion
People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should
think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words.
With me, it is exactly the opposite, and not only with regard to an entire
speech, but also with individual words.
These seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in
comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things
better than words. 
The question is posed “does music arouse emotion?” Then the debate unfolds… does music have emotion “written in to it” causing the listener to recognize and feel it, does the listener respond because they are associating an emotion to the character of the music, or a specific memory to the song? Emotion in the music or emotion associated to the music. Convincing arguments from both perspectives can be found. Although why we respond emotionally to music may be debated, there is no debate as to whether or not music arouses emotion.
This paper will explore the question: Why do we respond emotionally to music?
Robert Jourdain, in his book Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy , considers a number of questions regarding music and emotion including how does music elicit an emotional response. He explores musical pleasure and also ecstasy, which he describes as “pleasure taken to extremes”.
Upon first entering the chapter, I asked myself how far I wanted to explore this topic. Would dissecting the experience of emotional response to music and placing it under a microscope result in a diminished level of emotional pleasure or response when listening of personally significant music in the future? When listening to music, would my attention shift to self-study and awareness, noting my responses to, rather then experience the joy of, music? Would I only listen to musical structure and form, noting their potential to impact me? The mystery of music is part of the joy of the musical experience. But as I reflected on all of this, curiosity got the best of me. Why do I respond emotionally to music? I read on….
Jourdain described the arousal of emotion to music as a result of the experience of anticipation and fulfillment. He commented that disappointment is only felt as a disappointment because something did not unfold as anticipated. In other words, the emotion could have been at best “neutral”, or better, pleasure, if the situation did in fact unfold as anticipated. Anticipation prepares one for disappointment or the pleasure of fulfillment: anticipation prepares us for emotion. When listening to music, anticipation of where the music is going sets the listener up for fulfillment and the resulting sense of pleasure. Jourdain describes how the unexpected, the “violation of our expectation”, is a component of expressiveness. In addition to experiencing the pleasure of musical fulfillment, the unexpected, the unanticipated, also contributes to the emotional experience. In fact, Jourdain notes that music that is regular and predictable is rejected by the brain. We become bored. There are no changes to track, no surprises to grab our attention.
Jourdain states that the “deepest pleasure in music comes with deviation from the expected”. He goes on to discuss examples of deviation in harmony, melodic contour, and rhythm and how they contribute to the musical anticipation-fulfillment experience, to an emotional response in the listener.
Jourdain commented that the discomfort of new music may be a result of the listener not yet knowing how to anticipate within that form. I considered this as I reflected on the music-sharing times I have with my eighteen-year-old son. His music is not my personal preference, yet because it is an opportunity to be with my son, I regularly sit with him so that he can share his “latest favourites” with me. He enthusiastically points out musical details of interest to him, the harmonic textures and rhythmic complexities. He hears things that I don’t. Instead, I’m focused on how disorganized it feels, how distant it is from the logic and stability of Baroque music, for example. Jourdain is right. I do not know how to listen to this music. I can now determine to seek out musical elements and learn to anticipant where they might go (or not). Jourdain’s chapter has not yet reduced my emotional response to music, in fact, it may have increased the opportunity.
Jourdain sparked an interest in considerations to emotional response to music. I decided to compare Jourdain’s comments with more recent literature.
Jourdain’s observations and insights regarding contributing factors to emotional response to music are reflected in research results on this topic. A number of studies support Jourdain’s proposal that emotional responses to music are a result of musical expectancy or anticipation, the possible suspension of this, and its fulfillment.
Steinbeis, Koelsch, and Sloboda  concluded in their study that emotions elicited while listening to music are a result of the experience of suspension and fulfillment of musical expectations. They stated that the level of emotion increases with the suspension. Their study focused on harmonic expectations. Using self-report, electrodermal measurements and EEG recordings, they analyzed participant’s responses to unexpected (altered) harmonic sequences in Bach chorales. They noted that harmonically unexpected events aroused emotion, activating the orbital fronatolateral cortex. They suggested that the unexpected harmonies served to increase physiological arousal, which in turn increase emotional response.
Meyer  also proposesd that musical emotions are a response to suspended or fulfilled expectations. Chord progressions developed by Kowlsch and Friederici  were originally created to study music processing. However, it was noted that the unexpected harmonic structure of some of the chords aroused the orbital frontolateral cortex, implicated in the processing of emotion. The unexpectedness of the harmonic sequence resulted in emotional arousal in the listeners.
Koelshch  includes the idea that unexpected harmony or chord structures contribute to tension and that tension is associated with emotional experiences. The creation of tension and release adds another dimension to expectation and fulfillment.
Another study  explored the emotional processing of major, minor, and dissonant chords. Using brain imaging, the study examined individual’s responses to single chords. Minor and dissonant chords elicited stronger BOLD (blood-oxygen level-dependent) responses than major chords in the amygdala, retrosplenial cortex, brain stem and cerebellum. Koelsch et al  also noted increased BOLD activation in the amygdala, hippocampus, parahippocampus gyrus, and the temporal poles when study participants listened to unpleasant music. This increase in activation while listening to unpleasant music is believed to be an inhibitation, rather than an excitation of synaptic activity.
These studies which reported results of emotional arousal after short chord progressions or after single chords leads to the question: how much music does one need to listen to in order to have an emotional response? Joudain and others state that emotional arousal is in response to an experience of expectation and fulfillment. A few chords or a single chord of a specific quality do not allow enough time for a build up of expectation and fulfillment.
Bigand, Filipic, and Lalitte  explored the question of time course for emotional responses to music. In their study, participants listened to musical excerpts that were 1 second long and 25 seconds long. Listeners were asked to categorize the musical excerpts by emotion. They concluded from their results that even 1 second was enough for listeners to have an emotional response. I doubt, however, that in 1 second any listener actually had an emotional arousal but rather an observation of the emotional tone or quality of the sound.
Krumhansl concluded in his study that listener’s emotional response increased over time. I agree with this, and it reflects the listener’s opportunity to experience anticipation and fulfillment, to have tension build up and resolve, and to hear unexpected harmonic textures or progressions which heighten musical expectation.
When discussing emotional responses to music, several studies included physiological responses as part of that process. Grewe, Nagel, Kopiez, and Altenmuller  explored how music can give the listener “chills”. Although literal chills are rare, they happened during musical structural elements. Their study revealed the main contributors to emotional arousal include harmonic sequences, entrance of a voice, and the “violation of expectation”. They also highlighted a theme that other studies included here overlooked. They commented that strong emotions in response to music “do not occur in a reflex-like manner, but as a result of attentive, experienced, and conscious musical enjoyment”.
How does music arouse emotion?
Well- written music engages our attention through its unfolding structure. We follow it and our anticipation builds, we are awaiting fulfillment. Unexpected harmonies, chord progressions, dynamic changes, or phrase contours arouse a response and suspend our fulfillment. This suspension increases the anticipation and sweetens the fulfillment. Dissonance adds the element of tension which also arouses emotion. The resolution of tension adds yet another level of fulfillment.
Add to this the expressiveness woven into the music by the performers, plus any personal associations or memories to the music and you have a toxic mix, perfect for an emotional response.
As a listener, does this information diminish the emotional impact of music? Does it strip music down to structural elements and formula? Has emotional response been reduced to a reflex to a trigger?
No. This serves to increase the appreciation of well- crafted music. It informs the process of composing. It acknowledges the joy of discovery, the need to find new, the challenge and stimulation of the unexpected, and the ecstasy of fulfillment.
Music can noble hints impart,
Engender fury, kindle love,
With unsuspected eloquence can move,
And manage all the man with secret art.
2. Jourdain, R. 2002. Music, the brain, and ecstasy. Harper Perennial Publishers.
3. Steinbeis, N., Koelsch, S., & Sloboda, J. 2005. Emotional processing of harmonic
expectancy violations. Ann.N.Y. Sci. 1060:457-461.
4. Meyer, L.B. 1956. Emotion and meaning in music. University of Chicago Press,
5.Koelsch,S.T., Fritz, K., Schulze, K. et al. 2005. Adults and children processing
music: an fMRI study. Neuroimage 25: 1068-1076.
6. Koelsch, F. 2005. Investigating emotion with music neuroscientific approaches.
Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1060:412-418.
7. Pallesen, K.J., Brattico, E., Bailey, C., Korvenoja, A., Koivisto, J., Gjedde,A., and
Carlson, S. 2005. Emotion processing of major, minor, and dissonant chords. A
functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Ann.N.Y. Acad.Sci. 1060: 450-453.
8. Bigand, E., Filipic, S. & Lalitte, P. 2005. The Time Course of Emotional Responses
to Music. Ann. N.Y. Sci. 1060:429-437.
9. Krumhansl, C.L. 1997. An exploratory study of musical emotions and
psychophysiology . Can. J. Exp. Psychol.51: 336-353.
10.Grewe, O., Nagel, F., Kopiez,R., & Altenmuller, E. How does music arouse “chills”?
Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1060:446-449.