Powerful links between music and emotions

4 September 2019

“Music can arouse everything from very simple, primitive responses to complex high-level judgements", says Patrik Juslin, Professor of Psychology.

Hello there, Patrik Juslin, Professor of Psychology. You’ve written a book on the psychology of music, summarising 20 years’ research. What kinds of emotions does music arouse?

“Music can arouse everything from very simple, primitive responses to complex high-level judgements, including basic emotions like joy, sadness and anger, as well as more complex ones, such as nostalgia. We can experience mixed emotions, contradictory feelings and what I call ‘aesthetic feelings’, based on aesthetic assessment. We feel admiration for a musician or we’re fascinated by the beauty of music.”

So a wide range of different emotions are aroused by music. Why is that?
“There are a number of psychological mechanisms at various brain levels that can arouse emotions, individually or in combination. They all have a unique evolutionary origin, and some are ancient. Most of these mechanisms evolved long before music arose. We have several of the mechanisms in common with other social mammals that existed for 200 million years, whereas music has been around for some 40,000 years, judging from the oldest instruments found. So to understand why we make the music we do, we have to adopt an evolutionary perspective on these mechanisms.”

What happens when aesthetic assessments at a conscious, high level collide with low-level primitive emotions that are automatic and unconscious?
“Then we can react with positive feelings even to music we think is extremely poor in purely aesthetic terms. Some low-level mechanisms, such as conditioning, are immune to our high-level assessments in the brain. So even if we think the music is banal or bad, the conditioning still works. Then the awkward situation arises of us thinking the music’s bad but at the same time getting pleasure from it.”

How is the research done?
“Experimentation has been most central, in that many of these mechanisms are unconscious and work quite automatically. We systematically manipulate certain pieces of music to try to elicit emotional reactions, and we measure that with self-reports and the body’s physiological responses. Then we also carry out questionnaire surveys, interviews, diary studies and simulations to explore how people perceive music in a real environment.

“How music can evoke emotions is a classic dilemma that has fascinated researchers since ancient times, from Plato and Charles Darwin to William James and Freud. Perhaps it’s only in modern psychology that we’ve been able to begin understanding in earnest how it works, because it’s easier for us to investigate these unconscious processes.”

Patrik Juslins new book new book, "Musical
Emotions Explained" is published by Oxford
University Press. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Is there much interest in your research outside Sweden?
“Absolutely, yes. This is a highly rewarding subject, since almost everyone can relate to it. Music is perhaps the biggest leisure interest among young people, and the music industry in Sweden and abroad has a huge turnover. The knowledge can be used in, for example, music therapy, film music, marketing with music, music production and music course programmes.”

What’s the thinking behind your new book, published by Oxford University Press, the world’s largest university publisher?
“The book’s designed to be accessible and reach a wide audience so that more people can become aware of this knowledge. Few people are aware of how much we know about this today. My hope for the future is to now try to turn the fairly extensive theories presented in this book into practical applications and interventions in, for example, music therapy and music education. For instance, it could help musicians get better at conveying emotions, and at using music to treat mental illness.”


Facts: Music can arouse these mechanisms

  1. Brainstem reflex, an innate tendency to respond to certain properties of sound, such as high volume, or something that rapidly increases in tempo. This reaction, which essentially all living organisms have, makes us react quickly to danger.
  2. Rhythmic entrainment. When we listen to music with a powerful, suggestive rhythm close to our heart rate, a gradual synchronisation of the two rhythms takes place, affecting our emotional state. March music and rave music push our heart rate up, while lullabies calm us down.
  3. Evaluative conditioning  occurs when we have heard a piece of music repeatedly before, in a context with a certain emotional charge. When we hear the piece much later, the feeling is aroused again, perhaps on an entirely subconscious level. This mechanism is used in advertising and film music.
  4. Emotional contagion. We can be ‘infected’ by the emotional expression of music, just as research has shown that we reflexively mimic facial expressions.
  5. Visual imagery. Music can give rise to fantasies and mental images, and relate to things that are happening in our own lives. This mechanism is used in music therapy.
  6. Episodic memory. Music often evokes specific memories. We associate events and periods in our lives with specific music. For example, a piece of music can be associated with when we met our life partner.
  7. Musical expectancy. With all the music we have heard in our lives, we have learnt, in purely statistical terms, that some tone patterns are more common than others. This gives rise to unconscious expectations, and when the music confounds them, emotions arise. Much musical composition is based on a kind of play with expectations. These are subject to powerful cultural conditioning, since we build up various expectations depending on the music to which we are exposed.
  8. Aesthetic judgement, triggered when we adopt an aesthetic attitude to music. This means that we listen very carefully to the music and apply various criteria of aesthetic value to it. Is the music innovative, beautiful, complex or skilfully performed? These aesthetic assessments are simultaneously influenced by the other psychological mechanisms. If something musically unexpected happens, we may think the music is original. If we are strongly influenced by emotional contagion, we may find the music expressive and appreciate it more in our aesthetic assessment.


Patrik Juslin: Musical Emotions Explained, Oxford University Press

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The Music Psychology Group