An Exploratory Study of Musical Emotions and Psychophysiology

By Krumhansl, Carol L | Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, December 1997 | Go to article overview

An Exploratory Study of Musical Emotions and Psychophysiology


Krumhansl, Carol L, Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology


Abstract A basic issue about musical emotions concerns whether music elicits emotional responses in listeners (the `emotivist' position) or simply expresses emotions that listeners recognize in the music (the 'cognitivist' position). To address this, psychophysiological measures were recorded while listeners heard two excerpts chosen to represent each of three emotions: sad, fear, and happy. The measures covered a fairly wide spectrum of cardiac, vascular, electrodermal, and respiratory functions. Other subjects indicated dynamic changes in emotions they experienced while listening to the music on one of four scales: sad, fear, happy, and tension. Both physiological and emotion judgments were made on a second-by-second basis. The physiological measures all showed a significant effect of music compared to the pre-music interval. A number of analyses, including correlations between physiology and emotion judgments, found significant differences among the excerpts. The sad excerpts produced the largest changes in heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance and temperature. The fear excerpts produced the largest changes in blood transit time and amplitude. The happy excerpts produced the largest changes in the measures of respiration. These emotion-specific physiological changes only partially replicated those found for nonmusical emotions. The physiological effects of music observed generally support the emotivist view of musical emotions.

A curious gap exists between the musicological and psychological literatures on emotion. Music is believed by musicologists (e.g., Cooke, 1959) to invoke a wide range of powerful and highly specific emotional states. Listeners report emotional responses as being the strongest motivation for listening to music (Pansepp, 1995). And, as will be reviewed briefly below, numerous experiments in the psychology of music find considerable consistency in emotional judgments of music. Yet, basic psychological studies of emotion rarely use music as stimulus materials, or consider how music might cause emotional responses. Recent summaries of the literature (Lewis & Haviland, 1993; Ekman & Davidson, 1994) contain only scattered references to studies with music. This omission is notable given that research on emotions, as opposed to perception and cognition, frequently uses auditory stimuli and more complex and naturalistic materials, such as pictures and films.

This gap may reflect the intuition that musical emotions are not, in some sense, like other emotions. Possible reasons for this lie in differences in both antecedents and consequences of emotions. Antecedents in real life are environmentally determined conditions that have perceived or real implications for the individual's well-being, and are usually followed by overt actions, such as withdrawal or aggression, or at least plans to maintain wellbeing and self-esteem (Schweder, 1993). Emotions are considered important for physically preparing the individual to perform these actions by changes in cardiac and respiratory systems, for example. In contrast, the musical antecedent does not usually have any obvious material effect on the individual's well-being, and is infrequently followed by direct external responses of a goal-directed nature. In cases where movement occurs, such as with dance and physical work, the music serves as background to the movement. It may facilitate or shape the physical activity, but the physical activity is not addressed toward the emotion-producing stimulus, that is, the music.

Two other notable differences between music and other emotion-producing conditions should be mentioned. First, many, if not most, emotional situations not involving music occur in social interactions. As such, the emotional reaction is mediated by knowledge of social behaviours, values, motivations, and so on, that would have an extended personal history and be strongly determined by cultural norms. Second, these emotional situations often involve a verbal component that would invoke a rich system of symbolic representations and semantic associations.

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