From Joy To Triumph, Study Finds Music Evokes 13 Key Emotions In Listeners

BERKELEY, Calif. — Music often does a great job of saying what simple words struggle to convey, and you probably have a favorite song for whenever you’re feeling sad, looking for a pick me up, etc. Now, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have performed an extensive analysis on over 2,500 individuals’ emotional responses to thousands of songs. After finishing their work, the study’s authors concluded that the subjective experience of music across cultures can be represented through at least 13 key emotions.

These emotions, amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and energizing, were then mapped out on an interactive audio map. The map allows users to listen to thousands of song samples and see if their own emotional reactions to the songs match up with other people across various cultures.

“Imagine organizing a massively eclectic music library by emotion and capturing the combination of feelings associated with each track. That’s essentially what our study has done,” comments lead study author Alan Cowen, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in neuroscience, in a release.

“We have rigorously documented the largest array of emotions that are universally felt through the language of music,” adds senior author adds UC Berkeley professor of psychology Dacher Keltner.

Besides simply being fascinating, this study could prove beneficial across a variety of areas, from helping therapists pick out songs that evoke certain emotions to better informing music streaming services like Spotify on how to please listeners looking for a certain mood or ambiance.

The study included both American and Chinese citizens, and while there were many similarities among listeners’ emotional responses to certain songs, there were also differences. For instance, while both groups reported feeling “fear” when hearing the classic theme from 1975’s Jaws film, Americans and Chinese differed on whether the song made them feel good or bad.

“People from different cultures can agree that a song is angry, but can differ on whether that feeling is positive or negative,” Cowen explains.

Regardless of nationalities, participants generally agreed on overall emotional responses to certain musical sounds. However, an individual’s culture appeared to play a much more significant role in the level of “arousal” induced by a specific song. “Arousal,” for the purposes of this study was defined as the “degree of calmness or stimulation evoked by a piece of music.”

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For the research portion of the study, thousands of YouTube videos featuring songs from a variety of genres were scanned and used to build a comprehensive database of songs for the experiment. Some of the included musical genres were: rock, folk, jazz, classical, marching band, experimental and heavy metal.

Then, close to 2,000 U.S. and Chinese participants rated 40 music samples each based on 28 emotional categories. Participants were also asked to describe if each song evoked overall feelings of positivity or negativity, and their level of arousal after hearing each tune. With that data, the research team used a statistical analysis method to arrive at their top 13 emotional categories consistent across cultures.

A second portion of the research was also carried out, in order to validate and confirm the researchers’ initial findings. Just under 1,000 additional participants from both the U.S. and China were told to rate over 300 traditional Western and Chinese music samples. Sure enough, this second round of responses matched up with the original 13 top emotions researchers had identified.

Here are a few examples of songs used in the research, and the feelings they evoked in participants. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” energized listeners, Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” brought up feelings of sensuality, and The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” pumped listeners up. Additionally, “Somewhere over the Rainbow” brought about joy in listeners.

Heavy metal songs, on the other hand, were predominantly interpreted as defiant, and the classic music played in the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho triggered fear among participants.

“Music is a universal language, but we don’t always pay enough attention to what it’s saying and how it’s being understood,” Cowen concludes. “We wanted to take an important first step toward solving the mystery of how music can evoke so many nuanced emotions.”

The study’s authors admit that some of their findings may have been skewed by the pre-conceived associations participants had developed regarding certain pieces of music, such as the possibility that the Psycho theme wouldn’t be quite as scary if the movie wasn’t such an ingrained part of pop culture. That being said, they say the second portion of the research project validated their work in this regard, since participants were largely unfamiliar with around half of the traditional Western and Chinese songs used.

Click here to check out the interactive audio map.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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