Emotion, Music & Science.

Is peoples value in music related to the emotions it evokes in you when you listen? While some scholars believe that the notion of musical emotions remains a controversial area (Juslin & Västfjäll, 2006), and that the recognition of emotion in music has received little attention (Lima & Castro, 2011), a recent study by UC Berkely researchers suggests that the subjective experience of music across cultures can be mapped to at least 13 overarching feelings: amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and feeling pumped up (Cowan et al., 2020).

This study surveyed more than 2,500 people in the United States and China about their emotional responses to thousands of songs from genres including rock, folk, jazz, classical, experimental, and heavy metal. While the participants across multiple cultures mostly agreed on the emotional characterisations of musical sounds such as anger and joy, there was some level of varied opinions in relation to how much a particular emotion was stimulated (Cowan et al., 2020).

The Berkely study believes that by exploring subjective experience, they can validate these variations in valence, which refers to to the pleasantness or unpleasantness of an emotional stimulus. These positive and negative values were more culture specific than anything else. Lima & Castro (2011) may argue this has to do with age, such as the gradual decrease in responsiveness to sad and scary music from middle age onwards. In contrast, their findings suggest the recognition of happiness and peacefulness, both positive emotional qualities, remain stable from young adulthood to older age.

In the field of intertextuality, one of the modes as described by D’Angelo (2009) is Retro. This is related to nostalgia, an idealized longing for the past. I would argue that what music one has been subjected to in the past, is directly related to the emotional experience you will have listening to music in the present. Strategic and stylistic intertextuality (Spicer, 2009) are very deliberate techniques to stir emotion in postmodern audiences.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons made people feel energized whereas The Clash’s Rock the Casbah pumped them up. Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together evoked sensuality, and the Star Spangled Banner brings pride (Cowan et al., 2020). From birth to death we are continually entrenched in music. Sound is vibration and inextricably linked to old and deep emotional centres in the brain, such as attracting and securing a mate, deterring a predator or warning us of danger. (Douek, 2013).

While this allows composers to access and dialogue with their audience at a deep level, Douek (2013) suggests most music writers are themselves mystified at where their ideas come from and I would tend to agree. The core of creating and articulating musical ideas seems to be instinctive, intuitive and immediate. Something that you can never really control. Gutheil (1952) asked wether music and emotion research “can ever reach the goal of science”(p.11).

The culture industry, is however, doing its best to make a science out of emotions and music. New media platforms such as Spotify’s very algorithm is designed around moods and emotion, helping users to mediate and manage everyday experiences ((Fassler, 2020).

Music and background noise are also important atmospheric elements in retail settings, with some stores/restaurants having very loud ambience and others having very quiet ambience. A pilot study, two field experiments, and five lab studies show that low (vs. high or no) volume music/noise leads to increased sales of healthy foods due to induced relaxation. In contrast, high volume music/noise tends to enhance excitement levels, which in turn leads to unhealthy food choices (Biswas, Lund & Szocs, 2019).

Ultimately there are many factors which determine how you respond to a piece of music, which Juslin & Västfjäll (2006) believe is more important than why you may respond. They present a framework featuring six mechanisms through which music listening may induce emotions: (1) brain stem reflexes, (2) evaluative conditioning, (3) emotional contagion, (4) visual imagery, (5) episodic memory, and (6) musical expectancy. They refer to this as the “emotional induction to music” and it describes the way we feel stuff while hearing things.

I would hope that the universal appeal of music lies in the emotional rewards that music offers to its listeners and not within specific scientific explanations or studies. What makes these rewards so special will, and should be, always unique to each individual listener.


Biswas, D., Lund, K., & Szocs, C. (2019). Sounds like a healthy retail atmospheric strategy: effects of ambient music and background noise on food sales. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science : Official Publication of the Academy of Marketing Science, 47(1), 37–55.

Capurso, A., Fisichelli, V. R., Gilman, L., Gutheil, E. A., Wright, J. T., & Paperte, F. (1952). Music and your emotions. New York: Liveright.

Cowen, A. S., Fang, X., Sauter, D., & Keltner, D. (2020). What music makes us feel: At least 13 dimensions organize subjective experiences associated with music across different cultures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(4), 1924–1934.

D’Angelo, F. J. (2009). The rhetoric of intertextuality. Rhetoric Review, 29(1), 31–47.

Douek, J. (2013). Music and emotion — a composer’s perspective. Frontiers in systems neuroscience, 7, 82.

Fassler, A. (2020). Soundtrack your life with Spotify: music as a technology of the self in the age of affective algorithms (Doctoral Thesis). Retrieved from https://digitalwindow.vassar.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2051&context=senior_capstone

Juslin, P., & Västfjäll, D. (2008). Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(5), 559–575.

Lima, C., & Castro, S. L. (2011). Emotion recognition in music changes across the adult life span. Cognition & Emotion, 25(4), 585–598.

Spicer, M. (2009). Strategic Intertextuality in Three of John Lennon’s Late Beatles Songs. Gamut: Online Journal of the Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlantic, 2(1) , Article 11.



Music producer, Pianist, Father. Currently studying Masters of Creative Industry with SAE. Based in Brisbane, Australia.

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The Chass Lounge

Music producer, Pianist, Father. Currently studying Masters of Creative Industry with SAE. Based in Brisbane, Australia.