Music and Emotion

Music is defined as an art form and cultural activity whose medium is sound organized in time. Music has even been described as a “language of the emotions” by some authors (Cooke, 1959), something that crosses all borders of nationality, race, and culture. And then again, music can cut us to the core, expressing emotions more eloquently than words ever can. From the classicism of Mozart to the synthesizer-infused R&B of The Weeknd, nearly all genres spanning the entirety of music seem to incite some form of emotions in us. Albeit, at the end of the 1990s, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker infamously characterized music as “auditory cheesecake”: a delightful dessert but, from an evolutionary perspective, no more than a by-product of language.

Is music just “auditory cheesecake”, or does it have a deeper meaning? Why exactly does the experience of music distinctly transcend other sensory experiences? How is it able to evoke emotion in a way that is incomparable to any other sense?


The appreciation of music is tied to the ability to process its underlying structure — the ability to predict what will occur next in the song. But this structure has to involve some level of the unexpected, or it becomes emotionally devoid. Skilled composers manipulate the emotion within a song by knowing what their audience’s expectations are, and controlling those expectations (hereafter referred to as emotional expression) accordingly. Dipping into emotional expression- firstly, a listener could perceive any emotion in a piece of music; and in a nontrivial sense, it would be inappropriate to claim that the listener is “wrong.” The subjective impression of an individual listener cannot be disputed on objective grounds. This thus leads to a multitude of hypotheses linking music and emotions. Nearly all of said theories agree on perception and resulting arousal of “basic emotions”: it refers to the idea that there is a limited number of innate and universal emotion categories, which are more biologically fundamental than others (Tomkins, 1962; Izard, 1977; Ekman, 1992; Oatley, 1992; Plutchik, 1994; Power and Dalgleish, 1997).

Each basic emotion may be defined functionally in terms of a key appraisal of goal-relevant situations that have occurred frequently during evolution (e.g., Oatley, 1992). The situations include cooperation, conflict, separation, danger, reproduction, and caring. Support for basic emotions comes from a wide range of sources that include:

  • Phylogenetic continuity of basic emotions (Plutchik, 1980)
  • Early development of proposed basic emotions (Harris, 1989)
  • Distinct brain substrates associated with basic emotions (Murphy et al., 2003)
  • Distinct patterns of psychophysiological changes (Ekman et al., 1983)
  • Cross-cultural accuracy in facial and vocal expression (Elfenbein and Ambady, 2002)
  • Categorical perception of facial expressions of basic emotions (Etcoff and Magee, 1992)
  • Clusters matching basic emotions in similarity ratings of affect terms (Shaver et al., 1987)
  • Reduced reaction times in lexical-decision-tasks when priming words are taken from the same basic emotion category (Conway and Bekerian, 1987).

That music can be said to express emotions is largely integrated into the present approach, which may be summarized as follows: There are three distinct layers of perceived musical expression of emotions. Each layer corresponds to a specific type of coding (involuntary and emotion-specific physiological changes associated with emotional reactions that happen in part of the limbic system of the brain like the amygdala and the hippocampus as well as the pathways that transmit dopamine) of emotional meaning.

The “core” layer is constituted by mentally-coded basic emotions that can explain recent findings of universal recognition of basic emotions in vocal expression and music. The “core” layer can be extended, qualified and sometimes even modified by additional layers in terms of intrinsic and associative coding, which enable listeners to perceive complex emotions. These additional layers of expression are less cross-culturally invariant, though, and more dependent on the social context and/or the individual listener. At the “core” level of basic emotions, vocal and musical expression are fairly similar. At the additional layers that involve more complex emotions, vocal and musical expression begin to diverge from one another, due to the unique functions and uses associated with each modality. Depending on how an expression is coded in particular pieces of music, we may expect to find different results across empirical investigations.

Research to date has primarily focused on the mentally-coded expression of emotions in music. It would thus be interesting to explore in future studies how associative and intrinsic sources contribute to expression, beyond basic emotions produced by mental-coded sources.

The following pieces of music have really been able to play with my emotions and are what got me thinking about this whole relationship

Petricor, Fly and Experience by Ludovico Einaudi
Ab Ovo by Joep Beving
Mountains by Hans Zimmer(Interstellar)

Aditya Mishra

Volunteer Organiser,

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