This is a reproduction of an article that was originally published in themarknews.com (January 28, 2011):
Music may be an art, but science can help explain why it makes us feel powerful emotions.
A number of reasonable proposals have been tabled over the years in an effort to explain how we experience emotion in music. This article outlines a few of these proposals and one in particular concerning movement, which has been gaining some attention recently in the growing field of music cognition.
“Ring a bell and I’ll salivate/how’d you like that?”
Conditioning, or learning by association, is no doubt involved in our emotional response to music. We can develop a learned response to a neutral stimulus when it is paired with another stimulus that is clearly positive or negative. It’s remarkable how quickly those awkward feelings of middle school can come flooding back when we’re exposed, willingly or not, to that romantic last song of the last dance.
“It goes like this/the fourth, the fifth/the minor, fall the major lift”
Many structural aspects of music will give rise to expectations. Some of these expectations are culturally specific, while others appear more universal. For example, a large leap in a melody – such as the octave that occurs at the start of “(Somewhere) Over the Rainbow” – will give rise to the same expectation regardless of whether it’s experienced in Manhattan or Mumbai. The expectation is that the melody will change direction following the leap. If this expectation is denied by a continuation of the melody in the same direction, our autonomic nervous system gets a jolt, much as it would if a tiger were to enter the room. This jolt opens a window to emotional experience. However, other aspects of the music, which lie beyond the expectancy-denying event, are necessary in order to shape the interpretation of the emotional experience.
The etymology of the word “emotion” can be traced back to emovere from medieval Latin, which means “to move.” Indeed, emotions tend to have their own characteristic patterns of movement – for instance, the slow and heavy movements associated with sadness or the intense and abrupt movements associated with anger. Sensitivity to the patterns of movement displayed by those around us provides us with important nonverbal insight that helps us to navigate our social world.
The idea of music conveying a sense of movement has a long history. Movement can be implied in music through the speed of event onsets, the range of pitches, and the smoothness of transitions between pitches, to name but a few variables. Making sense of all this implied movement may require the mirror neuron system, a collection of neurons in the frontal and parietal cortex that responds to the execution and observation of goal-directed actions. My students and I believe that the mirror neuron system runs a simulation of the actions necessary to create the music, which in turn activates primitive emotion networks.
“Keep smiling through/just like you always do/till the blue skies/drive the dark clouds far away”
It’s interesting to note that people observing song will routinely display subtle muscle activation that is consistent with a singer’s facial movements. This muscle activation is normally too subtle to observe by eye, but it can be detected by recording changes in the electrical potential at the surface of the skin using electromyography. Within approximately 100 milliseconds of seeing and hearing a singer smile, previous research in our lab suggests that the audience is already smiling in response (albeit subtly). This example of social contagion is likely an automatic feed-forward consequence of the movement simulation referred to above. It stands to reason that if this automatic process is kept up for long enough, the smiling will rub off and influence our own mood.
In sum, we experience emotion in music through conditioning, through culturally specific as well as universal expectations, and through the internal simulation of movement.