Imagination and the Brain
April 30, 2014
Music and Emotion
I have always had great passion and fascination for music. Growing up, my older cousin used to always blast music from his room, genres ranging from rock to reggae. He was the largest influence in my life as a child because he introduced me to music that other children my age couldn’t. He not only showed me different types of music but also the best way to get it: downloading it illegally. However, I am not here to explain how my cousin taught a 10 year old Stephanie how to break the law. I am here to explore the depths of music and its effect on the brain. More so, I am here to try and figure out why and how it is possible for songs to provoke emotions. In the past, I thought that music only makes us feel a certain way because of how accustom we were to soundtracks in media. When we watch a scary movie, we understand what the style of music it’s going to be. When we watch action films, we know that fast paced and heart pounding noise will be blaring out of the speakers. Yet, it still doesn’t explain why those are suitable for those films. This led me to believe that it is much more cognitive than what I was led to believe. These questions are much like the chicken vs. egg argument. What actually came first, emotions to chords or chords to emotions?
Two of the most influential philosophers in the style of music are Stephen Davies and Jerrold Levinson. Davies terms his concept the expressiveness of emotions in music appearance emotionalism which holds that music expresses emotion without feeling it. Objects can convey emotion because of the way their built can contain certain characteristics that resemble emotional expression. "The resemblance that counts most for music’s expressiveness […] is between music’s temporally unfolding dynamic structure and configurations of human behavior associated with the expression of emotion.” Skilled listeners very similarly attribute emotional expressiveness to a certain piece of music, thereby indicating according to Davies (2006) that the expressiveness of music is somewhat objective because if the music lacked expressiveness, then no expression could be projected into it as a reaction to the music (Davies)
Philosopher Jenefer Robinson has a different approach on the link between emotions and music. She assumes the existence of a mutual dependence between cognition and elicitation when describing music as process' theory. Robinson argues that the process of emotional elicitation begins with an automatic, immediate response that initiates motor and autonomic activity (the study that I believe more in). This activity prepares us for possible action causing a process of cognition that may enable listeners to 'name' the felt emotion. This series of events is always changing and can blend into one another. This would cause conflicts and ambiguities that would make it difficult to express how one is felt in just a word. Instead, inner feelings are better thought of as the products of multiple emotional 'streams' (Robinson).
If we were to take a closer examination on the notes that make up the chords themselves instead of the chords making up the song, maybe then we could understand the link between the actual intervals contained in the chord and our emotion. In example 1, an A major chord is arpeggiated (play a chord as a series of ascending or descending notes), leading to a D major chord. Example 2 uses the same melody, but now minor chords are being used. Any normal person will say example 1 makes them feel happy and that the melody sounds uplifting. They would then say example 2 makes them feel sad and that the melody seems discouraging. Now, my goal is to understand why this happens. Do things that go ‘up’ always imply positivity? Things like a smile, test grades, income, and birds. And do things that go ‘down’ always imply negativity? Things such as a frown, burying someone, falling. I feel like it’s much more than a coincidence that there are relationships between what we find positive and negative in day to day life in correlation to music.
Having studied music most of my life (clarinet, piano), I have insight on the technical elements of instruments which help me better grasp the relationship between sound and emotion. In its simplest form, a chord is composed of three notes played simultaneously (also known as a triad). These three notes include the root, a 3rd and a 5th. By altering the 3rd or the 5th, we can make four different types of chords. Let’s make things easier to understand by focusing on just the difference between major and minor. We will simplify it even further by using C major and C minor as examples. C major is composed of the notes C, E and G. C to E is a major third and E to G is a minor third. If we look at C minor, which is composed of C, Eb and G, we will find the opposite. C to Eb is a minor third and Eb to G is a major third. Both contain a major and minor interval, but they sound like completely different chords due to where those intervals are placed. The third can essentially be viewed as the center point of the chord, which can be why it has such an effect on the way the chord sounds (Vuoskoski). I am just rambling here but could there be a connection between the space between the minor and major chord? Like I mentioned in the previous paragraph, there seems to be a relationship between things that go ‘up’ and ‘down’. This photo I took from a website demonstrates the explanation of the difference between major and minor chords (don’t you love the facial expressions?). Both chords contain the same amount of “space”, but if we focus on the positioning of the notes with respect to the lowest note, the major chord seems to have a greater presence, while the minor chord seems to be lesser in confidence (if you will). Could this actually have anything to do with the common emotional association of each chord? Perhaps not, but it is thought provoking none-the-less. Of course once we begin talking about chord inversions, this theory gets a little more complicated. In fact the visual diagram of a first inversion C major triad would look shockingly similar to the root position minor triad shown above. So surely it cannot only be the shape of the chord. Perhaps it is the shape PLUS a specific combination of intervals. I think I am beginning to get lost in my ability to visualize everything and anything, causing me to make assumptions out of nothing.
But, why do minor chords sound sad? The effect of a minor chord can be explained through the application of the Theory of Musical Equilibration, that is, the nature of the minor chords as the major being clouded by the minor. The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to hearing someone say, "No more." If someone were to say these words slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to yell it then that would entail them being angry. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury (Juslin). Ah, I think I have finally found a suitable answer for the link between emotions and sound. While speaking and having a conversation doesn’t initially strike us as being melodic, different languages do have different tones that can act like chords. The increase in volume of our voice can equate to the crescendo in songs and the same vice versa. I think this is the closest answer and most logical answer. But I still want to know the inner workings of the brain. Is it too scientific for me to wonder if our neurons transfer a specific type of chemical to the receptors that force us to feel something when we intake sound?
Another theory is that the frequencies in major and minor chords actually trigger emotions in our brains. Is it possible that the combination of notes generate a frequency that our brain processes to be an emotion (Juslin)? This, however, could be answered through the methods of music therapy which would involve its own research paper in itself (we couldn't even talk about Plato in one class period).
Maybe I am looking at it all wrong. I got too focused on chords and minors/majors instead of looking at the big picture. Maybe it isn't about a single note but about the actual song. Relative pitch triggers a much greater emotion than just playing F minor on the piano. Relative pitch is the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note by comparing it to a reference note and identifying the interval between those two notes. Relative pitch implies some of the following: determining the distance of a musical note from a set point of reference, e.g. "three octaves above middle C"; identifying the intervals between given tones, regardless of their relation to concert pitch (A = 440 Hz); the skills used by singers to correctly sing a melody, following musical notation, by pitching each note in the melody according to its distance from the previous note (Vuoskoski). Now, if we were just to focus on the ability to determine the distance of a musical note from a set point, then we can comprehend why drops in songs makes us feel sad. So for example, The Beatles' Something, played in C major, moves from an F to a D7 for the second line, in a moment that for me is very uplifting. If you transpose it up 5 semitones (the smallest interval used in classical Western music, equal to a twelfth of an octave or half a tone; a half step.) to A, that chord change becomes D to B7, but it is no less uplifting. Similarly, the examples I had conducted show the process of relative pitch.
One of the most popular reasoning’s behind music provoked emotions is that chords do not give us emotions but that we give the chords emotions. What is most difficult about answering the question of how music creates or evokes emotion is mainly the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution for this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. This theory states that music can't convey any emotion but merely volitional processes with which the music listener identifies (nature vs. nurture). After identifying, the volitional processes are filled with emotions. This is what happens we watch a horror film and identify the volitional process of the most frightening figures (Juslin). Like the horror film, context is one of the biggest factors when determining the relationship between sound and emotions.
“When you hear a chord, your brain automatically associates it with all of the other contexts you've ever heard that chord in. This means that the feeling you get from hearing a chord is almost entirely socially constructed and relative to your sociocultural upbringing.”
Nick Reiling, 2011
Comment on The Emotion Behind Sound
While this is certainly true due to our obsessions with films and television shows, it still doesn’t explain why those producers chose those specific songs. Let’s imagine that I am Tutankhamen. I ask one of my warriors to hum me a song of heroic magnitude. What would inspire that warrior to hum in C Major Chords similar to Mozart's Jupiter Symphony? It’s not like they had Steven Spielberg directing a featured film in 1332 BC. So, the theory that we only associate emotion with chords due to our cultural upbringing does not seem plausible when taking history into consideration.
After doing research I have come to the conclusion that there is not one true reasoning behind music and evoked emotions. Music is such an abstract subject and to try to understand its relationship with the brain makes it even more complex. I am still not satisfied with the answer that we give chords/songs/music emotion. I feel like the inner working of the brain has much more depth than what we think we give it. The closest possible answer to the linkage between music and emotions is probably that of spoken word and how we associate things we say with the things we hear. All in all, I wish there was a music theory class at Otis so I could better understand this question. Maybe you should start one!
Davies, S. (2006). "Artistic Expression and the Hard Case of Pure Music", in: Kieran, M. (Ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: 179-91.
Robinson, Jenefer. Deeper than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; pp. 310-13
Juslin, Liljeström, Västfjäll, & Lundqvist. (2010). How does music evoke emotions? Exploring the underlying mechanisms. In P.N. Juslin & J. Sloboda (Eds.), Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, and Applications (pp. 605-642). Oxford: Oxford University Press
Vuoskoski, J. K.; Eerola, T. (13 July 2011). "Measuring music-induced emotion: A comparison of emotion models, personality biases, and intensity of experiences".Musicae Scientiae 15 (2): 159–173