Friday, 29 April 2016

Creating and experiencing emotional responses with sound and music.

In examining the motivations behind writing and listening to music one will come across several psychological accounts regarding our reactions to the input (music and sound). The question of response to silence appears to be outside the bulk of research, but if a paper exists I should be pleased to be guided towards it).

A psychological model has been formed to account for emotional responses to music, it is given the memorable title “The BRECVEM model” and the authors are Juslin & Västfjäll. A detailed introduction can be read at

The authors originally provided seven systems of response but this was expanded later to eight. In order to simplify the mechanisms I have added in italics possible responses to listening to the opening pages of Beethoven’s first symphony.  Clearly these are not responses that would form part of my internal dialogue, but nevertheless take place.

These eight systems are:

Brain Stem Reflex:

The brain receives a musical signal and considers that a response is required, music is taken at its basic level of sound input. The orchestra’s forte on the opening chord surprises me and as the chords build on the feeling of tension and relaxation and I notice my breathing and heartbeat has intensified.

Rhythmic Entrainment:

Musical rhythm affects the listener’s internal functions (breath, heartbeat etc.) which may in itself produce an emotional reaction. The progressive sense of greater movement from the Adagio is confirmed at the Allegro and I am caught up in the action and my foot starts tapping out the rhythm.

Evaluative Conditioning:

Music is associated with positive or negative feelings. At the Allegro con Brio (after a pulse acceleration) my sense of excitement and happiness is intensified by the strong steady downbeats and the spring in the dotted quaver-semiquaver figure.

Emotional Contagion:

The listener identifies with the emotion presented in the music and then simulates the emotion to “resonate” with it. This “resonance” involves both physiological and psychological reactions. At bar 52 the oboe theme alters my perception of the mood of the symphony and through the change increases my sense of involvement with the music. I feel that the oboe sound perfectly matches my involvement and my mind wanders a little to reflect on this observation.

Visual Imagery:

Association of image (internal or external, real or imagined) with music. The cantabile tone of the oboe melody and the perky staccato accompaniment associates an image from a World War I film of a girl singing while deftly moving between her patients in a hospital ward.

Meyer (1956), “it seems probable that ...image processes play a role of great importance in the musical affective experiences of many listeners”

Episodic memory: Association with personal/social memories, significant life events. The oboe melody at the point of contagion reminds me of my friend who played the oboe who died some months ago.

Musical expectancy:

Prior knowledge of music creates expectations which are denied, (some psychologists identify this as creating negative reactions, and I would contest this, to the experienced listener the denial or surprise factor should be a positive, even humorous stimulus).  After the short three quaver figures at bar 69 I am expecting the music to start moving to the dominant but the sudden switch of dynamics and harmony take me by surprise.

Musical expectancy refers to those expectancies that involve syntactical relationships between different parts of the musical structure (Narmour 1991; Patel 2003).

Aesthetic judgement:

Individual evaluation based on message or meaning, the quality of the composition (craftsmanship), originality of design etc. Even in the opening pages Beethoven has involved me in an emotional journey, rapidly altering my views and reactions to the music.

Having these categories to identify what initiates a reaction (emotional or otherwise) will be of more use to those studying our behaviour than those wanting to direct their composing skills in a particular direction, but they are nevertheless categories with which a composer should give some consideration, they are the bedrock of what bring about an emotional response.

Turning to the inputs of sound, music and silence, the next question that arises in my mind is whether the emotion is contained within the composition or the listener, or shared between both. This in turn provoked me to ask the question of why some pieces of music create a particular emotive response (joy, sadness, laughter or tears), or in some cases a succession of responses or even a succession of different responses. It may be the case that readers will share with me the distinction between experiencing a single sound or even succession of sounds and the planned relationship of sounds experienced in a composition.  That statement also requires some thought as John Cage broke down the conventional relationship between sound and structured music. 1

So, is the emotion in the music or the listener? One school of thought is that music emulates characteristics that resemble or suggest human reactions (alternations of pp and ff,  tremolando strings, string glissando “sighs” come immediately to mind). The process of decoding such events and developing them into a narrative has already been considered in the previous blogs on motivation, but it is vital to recognise that some hold the view that the judgement of the listener is considered not only as vital but more important than the structure (the composition).

Some believe that there is a shared function between structure and appraiser. Process theory responds to the Juslin & Västfjäll table provided above, and suggest that music creates an immediate response preparing us for action which is felt as emotion. The number of reactions, and possibly different reactions arising from a piece of music, may create within us a sense of conflict and even create uncertainty, what we might commonly describe as a mixed response, so that our emotions “morph” over a period of time. I can’t think of a better example than Nielsen’s 5th symphony as a model for this type of reaction.

If we move out of the field of music for a moment and consider a drawing of a face as a circle, two dots and a curved line, we know that the result can bring about a response. The greater the craftsmanship in producing the image the deeper our involvement and emotional response, so for me the Mona Lisa holds more interest than a computer emoticon. In one input I can say “that is a happy face” in the other I have ambiguous feelings about the smile and a number of other factors in the painting. As a child I might have had different responses to which image I preferred and this is even more pronounced as an infant.

Returning to music our emotions are enhanced through a combination of elements which extend on the sounds we hear. The notion of structure has been mentioned already and the term structure takes us to the point of considering how education and the experience of listening helps us to experience emotional responses that might be denied or lost to us without understanding the craft of composition. The second element is the performance of the music, this includes areas such as accuracy, virtuosity and then fuzzy considerations such as warmth of tone and the way a performer gesticulates. Both performers and listeners will respond to the environment in which the music is played and this may appreciably enhance or destroy the experience.

We are now encroaching on Nurtan’s statements that people perceive music through their own individual characteristics and preferences partly based on personality and partly based on education. Both of us share the view that like a well-crafted watch a piece of music must show integrity in its design. To appreciate why we might like one time-piece over another we might open the case as well as look at the movement of the hands. Of course Nurtan may own a timepiece by Masahiro Kikuno based on a "temporal hour clock", and I a period piece Micky Mouse watch. That we can appreciate and enjoy these different objects is of course is a good thing. 2

1.       Nurtan’s comment:

One consideration that is difficult to include as a part of perception of music and the psychological reaction one might expect is the tuning of the instruments and the pitch we associate with a given frequency. For example, there is a significant difference between the modern Western tuning based on 440 A and Baroque turning which may range from a semitone above to a semitone below 440. There are cultures in which the music is based on Pythagorean tuning which is very significantly different in perceived sound than well-tempered scale. There are cultures that use only instruments in which one of the most important notes in the well-tempered scale, the tonic-fifth relationship does not exist. It is reasonably well established that we perceive music as a combination of its components. If one of the components and its perception is based on cultural considerations then it would be logical to assume that the interpretation of music is also culturally mediated. I think the essential rhythms of a language and the sounds of simple songs such as a lullaby are learned from in utero to the first six months after birth. These are permanent and form the foundation of music and speech even though at the time of learning they are not interpreted and can be expanded through "ear training". These considerations raise many very significant questions in the perception or interpretation of music, for which cross-cultural data do not exist. However, we can say with confidence that even among those who cannot differentiate tones a musical statement elicits a psychological response.


Fortunately or unfortunately Nurtan owns a very non-descript timepiece that was purchased some 15 years ago to replace a similar timepiece that was at least 20 years old. Perhaps in five years he will attain the level intricacy and sophistication required for a Masahiro Kikuno watch; but, he still will have to find his reading glasses to tell the time.