Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Music and emotion

Music and emotion:
How can music be used to influence emotion?
This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.


Emotional expression like this may be shown during music, although music may not create emotions that are easily observable through overt behaviour or action (Frijda & Sundararajan, 2007).
Uplifting Trance music: Note the fast tempo, timbre and pitch, loudness and major key. How does it make you feel?

Think back to a time when you were strongly emotionally swayed by a piece of music. What was so emotionally stimulating about that tune? Apart from any meaningful lyrics, why do you think it caused you to feel so strongly? Firstly there are a variety of questions that need to be considered in order to address how music influences emotion: does music create emotional reactions, and if so how does this happen? Why do we listen to music, and have humans always been interested in music and its uses? And lastly, how can we use this knowledge?

Does music really influence us emotionally, and how?Edit

There are a variety of influences that cause emotion in music. Some of these reactions are perceived differently between individuals. These include musical components and physiological reactions. There are also cognitive aspects to evoking and recognising types of emotion in music. The main focus of this article is on the musical components and accompanying physiological reactions, although cognitive aspects are discussed.

Why do we listen to music?Edit

Music is a leisure activity that occupies somewhere between an estimated two and a half to five hours a day for the average Western teenager (Strasburger & Wilson, 2002), and is a favourite and enduring past time (Chamorrow-Premuzic, Fagan & Furnham, 2010). It seems we choose to listen to music primarily to evoke our emotional experiences (Panksepp, 1995). This modification of emotion is at an ends a rewarding and pleasurable experience for the listener, and this seems to be the greatest reason for listening to music (Salimpoor et al., 2009). Furthermore, those who are not emotionally influenced by music are less likely to enjoy and listen frequently to it, while those who find music highly emotionally evocative will more likely find music most rewarding (Salimpoor et al., 2009).


Evidence of musical instruments has been found to date back as far as 40,000 years (Fitch, 2006). Historically, philosophers believed that music was an imitation of human nature and mind, and that once heard it would be imitated by the listener (Gabrielsson & Juslin, 2003). In fact, Plato was suspicious that music was able to take hold of the soul (Harris, 2004).

Ancient Greeks were more embracing of the evocative nature of music and applied music therapeutically, using it to enhance disharmonised states to drive them from the body (Gabrielsson & Juslin, 2003). Music therapy is documented as far back as 531 BC, where Pythagoreans used music to energise in the morning and relax and reduce worry in the evening (Bidelman & Krishnan, 2009). These applications are still used in musical therapy (Gabrielsson & Juslin, 2003).

What will this chapter cover?Edit

This chapter will cover:

  • how music affects the body physiologically
  • what musical components create these physiological reactions
  • the effects of individual differences on music and emotion
  • the learning and cognitive aspects of music and affective states
  • and finally to cover applications, such as therapeutic uses and promoting desired emotional states.

Why is this a sad song?Edit

  Radiohead - "Pyramid Song" (5.04 min., video)
In this chapter, the influences of how this song communicates a sense of sadness is explored. As an overview: note the minor key and slow tempo, the rhythm lacks a sense of predictability, and the instruments do not have a clarified, distinct or clear sound - called dissonance. These elements are all explored in the Musical components and Physiology sections of this chapter. Even ignoring the lyrics and video, this piece of music may have a strong emotional influence due to these factors.

Theories and researchEdit

Emotions experienced from listening to musicEdit

There has been great variation in the amount of emotions speculated to be evoked by music (Gabrielsson & Juslin, 2003). Zentner, Grandjean and Scherer (2008) attempt to narrow down these emotions to ten factors, as seen in Figure 1.

Emotions evoked from music

Factor Descriptive Examples
Tender Longing Affectionate, softened up, melancholic, nostalgic, dreamy, sentimental
Sensuality Sensual, desirous, languorous, aroused (sexually)
Amazement Amazed, admiring, fascinated, impressed, goose bumps, thrills
Activation Disinhibited, excited, active, agitated, energetic, fiery
Power Heroic, triumphant, proud, strong
Joy Joyful, happy, radiant, elated, content
Transcendence Ecstatic, spiritual feeling, mystical feeling, illuminated
Tranquillity Soothed, calm, in peace, meditative, serene
Dysphoria Anxious, anguished, frightened, angry, irritated, nervous, revolted, tense
Sadness Sorrowful, depressed, sad

Figure 1. Factors of emotions evoked by music, adapted from "Emotions Evoked by the Sound of Music: Characterization, Classification, and Measurement" Zentner, Grandjean & Scherer 2008, p. 499.

Musical componentsEdit

There are key cues within music structure that are likely to initiate emotional reactions. A fast tempo with a major key will create a positive, happy tune, while a slow tempo with a minor key will induce more negative, sad emotions (Hunter, Schellenberg & Schimmack, 2010). Furthermore the clarity of the tone effects the emotional interpretation.

In a review by Krumhansl (1991) the level of refinement in the music and tone is also an important influence on emotion. Timbre ‘colour’ is another emotional influence (Krout, 2007). The timbre is often dependent on the instrument used; in research by Hailstone, Omar and Henley (2009) the musical instrument used to play a melody affected the emotional interpretation.

Consonance and dissonance are aspects of sound that vary in their clarity. Consonant music is clear and well-defined, while dissonant music is less precisely executed (Dellacherie, Roy, Hugueville, Peretz & Samson, 2011). A tune with more dissonance is more likely to produce unpleasant feelings and induce stronger physiological reactions (Dellacherie et al., 2011; Krumhansl, 1991). The clear and smooth nature of consonant music tends to please a listener, while dissonant tone and music can be aggravating (Dellacherie et al., 2011). This is further explained by how coarse or refined the music is. The greater the coarseness, the more ambiguity and distress is perceived in the tune (Zentner et al., 2008).

Music can also create mixed emotions. Using a combination of both positive and negative stimuli (For example; a fast tempo for positive mood, combined with a minor key for negative mood). Mixed emotions involving both positive and negative emotions simultaneously may occur for a listener (Hunter, Schellenberg & Schimmack, 2010).

Juslin and Västfjäll (2008) conclude from their review that the brain is alerted to a potentially urgent event by certain aspects of music. The arousal of unpleasant feelings or negative emotions appears to be created by musical elements such as dissonance, and sudden and loud sounds. Effectively, the brain is interpreting the music on a basis of important environmental sound which could potentially be dangerous (Juslin & Västjäll, 2008). Further inspections of physiological impact can be made on the emotional influence of music.

Video: A minor scale, which is more likely to evoke negative emotions such as sadness.

Physiological impactEdit

Types of physiological reactionsEdit

Musical structure can also have a strong impact physiologically (Koelsch, 2010). Effects include heart rate and blood pressure, respiration, electrodermal activity, and body temperature changes (Salimpoor et al., 2009). For further discussion, see Measures of emotional reactions

Central nervous system and heart rate changesEdit

Neural activity may increase and decrease in various emotive areas of the brain, depending on the type of music listened to. "Chills" or “shivers down the spine” are an intense physiological reaction usually experienced at peak emotional points in a music composition (Salimpoor et al., 2009).

Chills may also be experienced on exposure to new dynamic harmonies with changes which the listener was unprepared for (Grewe, Nagel, Kopiez & Altenmuller, 2007). Experience of musical chills leads to cerebral blood flow changes in many brain areas associated with rewarding or motivational stimuli (Blood & Zatorre, 2001; Peretz & Zatorre 2005) that are also associated with reward centres for drugs and food (Small et al., 2001). Heart rate is greater during negative emotive stimulation from music (Coutinho & Cangelosi 2011), possibly due to negative emotive stimulation weighing in as more significant to an individual than positive emotions (Dellacherie et al., 2011).

Hormones and neurotransmittersEdit

Dopamine is released if music progression meets certain expectations, especially at peak emotional points in a piece of music (Samilpoor et al., 2011). These emotional expectations are further explained in Cognitive and learning aspects. Music may also vary the levels of cortisol, epinephrine, opiods, and receptiveness to gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA). Additional information on these hormonal and neurotransmitter changes are discussed in the Applications section of this chapter.

Measures of emotional reactionsEdit

There are several ways of measuring the emotional impact of music, including

  • self-reports (Riganello, 2010)
  • skin conductance (Coutinho & Cangelosi 2011)
  • muscular activity (Electromyography or EMG) (Dellacherie et al., 2011)
  • heart rate variability and blood pressure (Coutinho & Cangelosi 2011; Dellacherie et al., 2011)
  • chills as a measure of intense emotional reaction, usually of pleasure (Salimpoor et al., 2009), and
  • lesion studies and neuroimaging techniques (Peretz & Zatorre, 2005).

While self-reports are useful to gain a wide variety of qualitative input, or direct emotion-naming, the physiological measures are useful for purposes such as monitoring emotions in people who may be unable to communicate their emotions verbally (Ringanello, 2010), and to measure levels of intensity through objective measurable means (Grewe, Kopiez & Altenmüller, 2009).

Did you know? Ringanello, Candelieri, Quintieri and Dolce (2010) discovered that otherwise unresponsive people with traumatic brain injuries, and those in a vegetated state, still showed what appeared to be emotional reactivity to music through a measure of heart rate variability.


Individual differencesEdit

Why do one’s musical preferences differ from another's? Furthermore, does everyone experience emotion from music in the same way? Personality, age and emotional intellect are possible influences on these differences.

Personality is an important moderator of emotional perception and influence in music. According to research by Vouskoski (2011), Extroverts are more likely to be sensitive and attuned to "happy" music, while those scoring high on Neuroticism are more likely to be strongly emotionally affected by ‘sad’ music.

Researchers Chamorrow-Premuzic, Fagan & Furnham (2010) also note that Extroverts more commonly use upbeat music as a background to other activities, in line with a need for more environmental arousal. Lastly they point to a link in the personality trait of Openness to Experience, with a high score corresponding with a taste for complex music.

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is also a predictor of how an individual uses music, and how perceptive they are to emotions expressed within the music. However, EI is not as strong a predictor to emotional perception and influence as Extroversion and Neuroticism (Chamorrow-Premuzic et al., 2010). This research is however limited with the use of self-report measures, and could be replicated with physiological measures for further support.

Age may also have an effect on emotional perception. Older adults generally do not recognise negative emotions as sensitively as younger adults, and further do not perceive as much intensity (Laukka & Juslin, 2007). Lima and Castro (2011) speculate that people become less sensitive to music as they age, and reveal through their research that people generally also find music less scary in later years. Recognition and receptiveness of positive music on the other hand remains the same throughout the adult lifespan (Laukka & Juslin, 2007; Lima & Castro, 2011). These studies however leave out the emotional perception in music of children.

Cognitive and learning aspectsEdit

Emotions created from listening to music are likely to also have cognitive and learning causes. In their review of literature Juslin and Västfjäll (2008) support a cognitive perspective of influences on emotional perception from music, and propose four areas in which cognition and learning in relation to music may create emotional reactions.

Emotional contagionEdit

Emotional contagion refers to emotional mimicking of music by listeners, similar to the way in which people empathise with other people’s emotive gestures by copying them, and ultimately experiencing the same emotion (Juslin & Västfjäll, 2008). Emotional contagion maintains that the individual cognitively recognises the emotional message of the music, then once interpreted mimics that emotion back and subsequently experiences the emotion (Gabrielsson & Juslin, 2003).

Evaluative conditioningEdit

Evaluative conditioning or pairing is where a musical piece is repeatedly paired with a particular emotional event, and comes to create that same emotion upon listening to the music again. This is demonstrated by the fictional film and novel A Clockwork Orange , in which the main character is purposely conditioned to associate any kind of violent action with an extreme feeling of unease and nausea, and incidentally becomes conditioned with the same response to the music that was playing at the point of conditioning. A clip from the movie portraying this association can be seen here. Outside of this extreme example in the popular media, this association may still be present in everyday living. For example, you may reflect back on the fun you had at final year dance at primary school when you hear a song that was played there.

Visual imageryEdit

More controversially, according to Juslin and Västfjäll (2008), a listener may create visual imagery whilst listening to music, triggering emotional reactions not from the music but from the imagery itself. An example is listening to serene music, and visualising a beautiful landscape, generating an emotion of relaxation. Furthermore, bodily imagery may be imagined, such as a floating sensation. Visual imagery is a less accepted cognitive theory on the emotional influence of music (Kolers, 1983).


Expectancy refers to the degree to which musical progression confirms, violates or delays a listener’s expectations (Juslin & Västfjäll, 2008). Although there are strong physical consequences when music meets a listener’s expectancies, these expectations are argued to be monitored cognitively along lines of grammatical and syntax rules and learned compositional progressions by Juslin and Västfjäll (2008). They also argue that these expectations are not due to cognitive appraisal, where a piece of music may be more rewarding when it turns out better than expected.

"Jingle Bells" may be considered a happy tune by some, but annoying to others. It has a fast steady tempo, a major key, and is somewhat predictable. Through evaluative conditioning it may also be associated with memories of celebrations for Christmas, adding to it's emotional value. Evaluative conditioning might occur if you often find yourself last minute Christmas shopping in a mall crowded with hectic present seekers, with Jingle Bells playing in the background. You may find yourself feeling irritated when the song plays again outside of this circumstance.


Therapeutic usesEdit

Koelsch (2010) suggests improved knowledge of the neurological impact of music may aid the treatment of emotional disorders by using music for treatment. There are many therapeutic uses of music. Some examples include:

  • Krout (2007) suggests the use of music to compete with and distract from pain, from a Gate Control Theory perspective.
  • Results from a meta-analysis by Gold, Voracek & Wigram (2004) find that music therapy is useful for children and adolescents with mental illnesses, particularly in the treatment of behavioural and developmental disorders, and those who are unable to express emotional distress verbally.
  • de Niet, Tiemens, Achterberg and Hutschemaekers (2011) discovered that music can be used effectively in care settings to reduce anxiety, increase relaxation and improve sleep, in place of sedatives.
  • A review by Sherratt, Thornton and Hatton (2004) suggests that music therapy be used in place of pharmacological treatment for problematic behaviours in those with dementia.
  • Neumann and Heng (2011) found that weight-lifters were able to lift more in experimental conditions with exposure to music, than without. They suggest further research into the use of music and enhancing exercise, and appropriate emotion, motivation and state of mind. Furthermore Sugiharto (2009) notes through their research that the reduced levels of cortisol and increased endorphins experienced during music exposure make high-intensity exercise training less stressful.
  • Thaut et al. (2009) found that music therapy assisted with the recovery of cognitive functioning and assisted in emotional regulation of those who have experienced traumatic brain injuries.

There still may be many other possible uses for music therapy. There are also applications that everyone can apply in their own everyday living. Music may also be useful for relaxation purposes.

The drug-like effect of music - try meEdit

Put your feet up and relax to some music

Music can be used to promote and maintain general well-being (Krout 2007). Rather than just applying it for use in treatment of stress related illness, the researcher suggests music can be utilised to promote relaxation and combat everyday stresses. According to Krout (2007), listening to relaxing music achieves this through several physiological means:

  • it can reduce levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine
  • opoids and morphines are created from the release of peptide hormones with relaxing music, enhancing relaxation
  • endorphin production is stimulated, modulating pain and reducing stress, along with creating pleasurable and calm feelings
  • brain cells become more receptive to GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid), slowing down neuronal activity - in the same way barbiturates act to decrease anxiety and create a sense of euphoria.

Krout (2007) defines relaxing music as a tune with a slow and stable tempo, low volume level and soft dynamics, consistent texture (combination of sounds and instruments), with simple harmonic progressions, gentle timbre, connected melodies (known as legato), and an absence of percussion or accented melody. Try listening to find out if these drug-like effects happen to you. Here is a website where you can try this out

Critique of current theories and researchEdit

A wide variety of research on music and emotion exists. There are endless and exciting possibilities for the exploration of this topic, and the current research presented also indicates a lot of these findings may be very beneficial; for use in everyday life, in enhancing performances or states of mind, and in treatment for mental health illnesses. There are however a few limitations to much of the current literature presented. Many studies reviewed had low samples sizes, and there are few meta-analyses in the area (Gold et al., 2004). A reason for this may be that research techniques do not involve consistent measure of emotion; these varied from self-reports, with inconsistent areas of emotional focus among them, and physiological ratings from heart rate variability and skin conductance.

There are further discrepancies and issues limiting generalisability among the presented literature. The types of music used in experimental conditions varies widely. What was considered as a pleasurable song by researchers was determined by differing factors and musical components.

Among the literature there is a lack of cross-cultural comparison of emotions perceived and experienced emotions in music, and a presumption of global validity from Western samples. Furthermore, all researchers focused their experimental studies in laboratory settings, ignoring the impact of music on affective states in everyday situations, such as its use for individual needs or in social circumstances. The terms mood and emotion were used interchangeably in the same context throughout literature, rather than addressing them as separate phenomena. It is possible that important differences between the two are not well understood in terms of musical exposure. A stronger understanding and a consistent use of descriptive measures is needed before a better idea of the effect of music on emotion can be explained confidently.


Music is primarily used to evoke and enhance emotive states. These emotive states are created by a variety of musical components, subsequent physiological reactions, and cognitive factors. Music can also be used effectively in a variety of circumstances therapeutically and to enhance certain states. Further knowledge and research is needed to better understand what components of music best amplify various emotional states. This research needs to be conducted through consistent and clear means. This chapter mainly focused on the physiological influences, further exploration into cognitive perspectives would be beneficial to the understanding of the emotional influence of music.

What musical mood are you in? Try this interactive website where you can play music to suit your mood: ♫ Musicovery

See alsoEdit


Bidelman, G.M. & Krishnan, A. (2009). Neural correlates of consonance, dissonance, and the hierarchy of musical pitch in the human brainstem. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(42): 13165 – 13171, doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3900-09.2009

Blood, A J., & Zatorre, R.J. (2001) Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proc Natl Acad Sci 98(20): 11818–11823. doi: 10.1073/pnas.191355898

Chamorro-Premuzic, T., Fagan, P., & Furnham, A. (2010). Personality and uses of music as predictors of preferences for music consensually classified as happy, sad, complex, and social. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4(4), 205-213. doi:10.1037/a0019210

Coutinho, E., & Cangelosi, A. (2011). Musical emotions: Predicting second-by-second subjective feelings of emotion from low-level psychoacoustic features and physiological measurements. Emotion, 11(4), 921-937. doi:10.1037/a0024700

Dellacherie, D., Roy, M., Hugueville, L., Peretz, I., & Samson, S. (2011). The effect of musical experience on emotional self-reports and psychophysiological responses to dissonance. Psychophysiology, 48(3) 337–349, doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2010.01075.x

de Niet, G., Tiemens, B., Achterberg, T., & Hutschemaekers, G. (2011). Applicability of two brief evidence-based interventions to improve sleep quality in inpatient mental health care. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 20(5), 319-327. doi:10.1111/j.1447-0349.2010.00733.x

Fitch, W.T. (2006) The biology and evolution of music: A comparative perspective. Cognition, 100(1) 173-215, doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2005.11.009

Frijda, N.H., & Sundararajan, L. (2007). Emotion Refinement: A Theory Inspired by Chinese Poetics. Perspectives on Psychological Science 3(2) 227-241, doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2007.00042.x

Gabrielsson, A., & Juslin., P.N. (2003). Emotional expression in music. In Davidson, R.J., Scherer, K.R., Goldsmith, H.H. (Eds.), Handbook of affective sciences (pp. 503 - 534). New York: Oxford University Press.

Gold, C., Voracek, M., & Wigram, T. (2004). Effects of music therapy for children and adolescents with psychopathology: A meta-analysis. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 45(6), 1054-1063. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.t01-1-00298.x

Grewe, O., Kopiez, R., & Altenmüller, E. (2009). Chills as an indicator of individual emotional peaks. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1169, 351-354, doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04783.x

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Lima, C.F., & Castro, S.L. (2011). Emotion recognition in music changes across the adult life span. Cognition & Emotion 25(4) 585-598, doi: 10.1080/02699931.2010.502449

Neumann, D. L., & Heng, S. (2011). The effect of associative and dissociative attentional focus strategies on muscle activity and heart rate during a weight training exercise. Journal of Psychophysiology, 25(1), 1-8. doi:10.1027/0269-8803/a000011

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Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Longo, G., Cooperstock, J.R., & Zatorre, R.J. (2009). The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal. PLoS One, 4(10), e7487, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007487

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Strasburger, V.C., & Wilson, B.J. (2002). Children, adolescents and the media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Sugiharto, H. (2009). Physiological effects of music during exercise secretion of hormones cortisol and endorphins. Folia Medica Indonesiana, 45(2), 121-124. Retrieved from

Thaut, M. H., Gardiner, J. C., Holmberg, D., Horwitz, J., Kent, L., Andrews, G., & McIntosh, G. R. (2009). Neurologic music therapy improves executive function and emotional adjustment in traumatic brain injury rehabilitation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1169, 406-416. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04585.x

Vuoskoski, J. K., & Eerola, T. (2011). The role of mood and personality in the perception of emotions represented by music. Cortex: A Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 47(9), 1099-1106. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2011.04.011

Zentner, M., Grandjean, D., & Scherer, K. R. (2008). Emotions evoked by the sound of music: Characterization, classification, and measurement. Emotion, 8(4), 494-521. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.8.4.494

External linksEdit

Areas in which to expand this articleEdit

  • Dance, music and Emotion - the biological explanations and social motivations
  • Mathematical patterns in music - wavelengths and cord synchronicity
  • Non-human animals and musical preference
  • Music and learning