Listening to Music Can Evoke Multiple Emotions, According to a New Study
Sat, April 17, 2021

Listening to Music Can Evoke Multiple Emotions, According to a New Study

Music can not only transcend language barriers, but it can also evoke at least 13 emotions in different cultures / Photo by: Dean Drobot via 123RF

 

Music can not only transcend language barriers, but it can also evoke at least 13 emotions in different cultures. A new study from the University of California, Berkeley investigated the emotional responses to thousands of songs of different genres such as rock, folk, jazz, classical, marching band, experimental, and heavy metal.

"We have rigorously documented the largest array of emotions that are universally felt through the language of music," said psychology professor Dacher Keltner, the senior of the study. Lead author Alan Cowen added that their study essentially organized a "massively eclectic music library by emotion" and also identified the combination of feelings that each track evoked.


The Subjective Experience of Music

The researchers surveyed a total of 2,849 participants from the US and China about their emotional responses snippets of songs like Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You," George Michael's "Careless Whisper," and America's national anthem the "Star-Spangled Banner" using Amazon Mechanical Turk's crowdsourcing platform.

While listening to the snippets, the participants were asked to describe the emotions and "arousal" level they felt. The level of "arousal" refers to the degree of calmness or stimulation felt while listening to music. Cowen and his colleagues then used large-scale statistical tools to identify 13 distinct emotions associated with various music genres in the US and China.

Based on the static map of emotions, the subjective experience of music across cultures can be mapped on at least 13 feelings: Amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and feeling pumped up.

Both US and Chinese participants felt the same emotions while listening to a certain track, but the researchers said there were differences on whether emotions evoked a positive or negative feeling on them.

"People from different cultures can agree that a song is angry, but can differ on whether that feeling is positive or negative," Cowen said in a statement. The lead author noted that positive and negative values—or "valence" in psychology parlance—are more culture-specific.

Most study participants also agreed on the general emotional characterizations of musical sounds (e.g. joyful, angry, annoying), but had differing opinions on the levels of "arousal."

Songs like Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" made the participants feel energized while Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" evoked sensuality. While Israel Kamakawiwoʻole's "Somewhere over the Rainbow" made participants feel joy, the shower scene score from "Psycho" stimulated fear.

Listen Closely

Some of the associations the participants made in the study may have been based on the context in which they had previously heard a certain piece of music.

This could be in a movie or YouTube video portraying a certain emotion. However, this is less likely when it comes to traditional Chinese music, with which the researchers said the findings were validated.

Before this study, the researchers conducted another research identifying 27 emotions stimulated by YouTube video clips. Studying the emotions evoked by music seemed like the appropriate next step, according to Cowen.

"Music is a universal language, but we don't always pay enough attention to what it's saying and how it's being understood," the lead author said. "We wanted to take an important first step toward solving the mystery of how music can evoke so many nuanced emotions."

Listening closely to what the music is saying is important, especially since instances of this activity have risen. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry released a 2019 report stating that people spend 18 hours a week listening to music—nearly an hour up from 17.8 hours in 2018.

The report, which surveyed music consumers aged 16-64 in 21 countries, also found that a large portion (54%) identify as being "fanatical" about music—63% of which are aged 16-24.

Most global music consumers typically listen to music while in the car (66%), relaxing at home (63%), while commuting (54%), and even while doing household chores (54%).

Some of the associations the participants made in the study may have been based on the context in which they had previously heard a certain piece of music / Photo by: rawpixel via 123RF


How Does Music Keep People Engaged?

With the recent study's findings, the emotions evoked through listening to music may help experts further understand what is it about music that keeps people hooked on it.

Music can captivate its listeners, but increased engagement with it may lose its allure. A study from the City College of New York found that people are less likely to listen to a song again if its music style is familiar to them.

Unfamiliar music styles, on the other hand, are likely to sustain their interest—especially among audiences with musical training.

"When a listener is engaged with music, their neural responses are in sync with that of other listeners, thus inter-subject correlation of brainwaves is a measure of engagement," the researchers said in a statement.

For their study, they measured the synchronization of brainwaves in an audience and found that inter-subject correlation dropped for tracks written in a style familiar to them.

Those who have formal musical training demonstrated more inter-subject correlation across repeated exposures to instrumental music and were able to sustain it when exposed to unfamiliar music styles.

"What is so cool about this, is that by measuring people's brainwaves we can study how people feel about music and what makes it so special," said Jens Madsen, a lead author of the study from CCNY's Grove School of Engineering.