Emotion in Music: What the Ear Hears

Often when people are presented with idea of music psychology, they quickly get to wondering about how music can provoke strong emotions in listeners. Who can blame them? It is pretty cool that merely hearing sounds can cause us to have intense feelings. And music can elicit a great range of feelings, depending on the way sounds are produced, how they’re combined with each other, and in what order they’re put. People’s fascination with the expressiveness of music was brought to my attention again this last week as I caught an extended interview with Dan Levitin, author of the books This is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs. As intriguing as this topic is for the general public, it’s also of critical importance to musicians and music teachers.

Unless you believe in a sixth sense like clairvoyance or telepathy, then we can agree that anything communicated from one person to another must happen via our five senses. This is the case with musical communication. In order for the expressive sounds of a soloist to emotionally affect us, we have to hear it. (Of course, music can also be tactilely felt; and live performances can be seen…more on that below.) Sound has certain qualities that our ears can perceive. Then our minds try to make sense of those sounds, to find meaning in them. When, say, a cellist plays a sad melody and a listener responds by feeling a pang of regret, the sounds produced by the cello must have contained some very real acoustic properties that the ears and mind could handle.

Musicians who perform someone else’s music begin their expressive communication process with some things already in place. One might say a lot in place. Whether it’s classical musicians rehearsing from a composer’s written score or a rock “tribute band” covering a recording of their namesake, they essentially start with the notes given to them. The pitches and rhythms–and the larger sequence/structure of the notes–are prescribed. Even so, the performers have great expressive license here. This mainly comes in the elements of tempo, loudness/dynamics, and articulation. Additionally, some instruments are able to make changes in timbre, and add vibrato (i.e., slight wavering of pitch). These elements of sound are the “stuff” of music. It’s what performers have to work with as they’re trying to make their music emotionally affect listeners. And really, these elements are a pretty comprehensive list.

I realize that some musicians object to such a reductionist approach. But let me assure you that the more I try to get “under the covers” of musical expressivity, the more I am amazed by it! I’m not suggesting that musical expression can be easily simulated through some formula of acoustic variables. And I’m also not advocating an educational approach that eliminates emotional language in favor of systematic attention to tempo, loudness, and articulation. But what I am saying is this: A musician’s expressive intentions will not emotionally affect listeners unless those intentions somehow become perceivable sound properties (again, barring any visual cues of a live performance). Audience members do not have direct access to the soul of a musician. They must rely on the outward expressions. And those expressions travel via sound wave to listeners’ ears.

Some of my past research efforts have focused on explaining how developing musicians try to infuse their performances with expressivity. One thing is for sure, there’s no one way that they like to do it. Some prefer to visualize emotional images or scenarios. Others stick to the sound properties; they may mentally rehearse a version of their music with prominent expressive features, then try to match that aural model in their performing. Still others attempt to muster up felt emotions in themselves, perhaps by recalling joyful or painful events from their lives.

All of these approaches can be effective. And…all of them can fail. In fact, a musician’s emotional intentions can actually interfere with their ability to perform expressively. This is really interesting to me. Sometimes musicians’ expressive goals or expectations are so strong that they seem to bleed over into how they hear their own performances. In other words, they think they’re being expressive, but that is more based on their intent to be expressive, rather than an accurate judgment of the sound they’re producing.

So what practical things can we take away from this? Here are a few that come to mind:

  1. It’s good for musicians to record their performing, in order to step outside of themselves. Listen like an audience member, and judge the expressivity as an observer. Let’s face it…performing sometimes takes all of musicians’ focus and energy, so that they don’t have any attention left over to accurately monitor in realtime how they sound.
  2. Younger musicians will benefit from mixing approaches to expressive performance. A music teacher might present a student with an expressive aural model (“Listen to how I sing this”) and an imagery-based description (“The melody should float like a leaf in the breeze”) and direction about the sound properties (“I’m making the notes smooth and connected”). This way the student can learn musical terminology and how it applies to sound.
  3. Expressivity really is the thing in music. As important as it is, though, not enough instruction and practice time is devoted to it. Formal music lessons in our Western culture tend to be dominated by technique instruction, and that is what students take to their practice sessions. But what would most audiences prefer to hear: a lifeless note-perfect performance, or an emotionally-moving one with some missed notes?
  4. Finally, live music is so great because the audience can take in visual expressive cues in addition to the sound qualities. In a live performance, facial expression, bodily posture, and physical gesture are all extremely communicative, sometimes even more so than musical sound. In fact, research has shown that audience members–even musically sophisticated ones–find it difficult to ignore visual cues and accurately judge the musicality of the sound. Many student musicians who give recitals and concerts could stand to devote a little more attention (and practice) to improving the visual aspects of their performing.
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9 responses to “Emotion in Music: What the Ear Hears

  1. Gabrielle Deschamps

    I’ve also started reading “This is Your Brain on Music”. Another book that I found extremely interesting on this subject is “How Music REALLY Works”. I found it so fascinating that I based a whole senior unit on it.

    With regard to expressiveness, I have found that sometimes I’ve had to tell the student to sing a song with as little expression as possible, because of the reason you said here: their expressiveness gets in the way. I used to be same myself, and my singing teacher had to get me to strip it all away so we could work on technique, then put the expression back – in a more eloquent form – once the technique was right. I find myself now teaching the same thing.

  2. Gabrielle Deschamps

    Btw, sorry for the double post, but my name won’t link to my current blog and I can’t seem to change the address. You’ll find me at http://musicteachntech.edublogs.org/. :)

  3. Again, excellent post! I especially appreciate your emphasis on multi-modal teaching (metaphor, rote, and technical). I also agree about the value of expression over perfect technique.

    But I have a picky sort of criticism: the focus on expression as *the* thing in music is something I mostly agree with, but this is still a little ethnocentric from a presentational Western idiom. Participatory music activities may or may not be about emotional expression per se. Music for rhythmic coordination (e.g. work song) may be expressive but it might not be *the* thing. There are further examples. The point at the end of the day is to be aware of purpose, and certainly the purpose is often expression. And when that is the case, all your suggestions are superb. And, actually we might as well be expressive in all cases; I’m just pointing out that music has other primary purposes in other cultural contexts.

  4. Hello, Bob! It’s wonderful to come upon your blog! I love your practical tips on teaching this to the students, and will incorporate more of those in my teaching style. It is easy to get “caught up” in the technique of playing without introducing the emotion of it. In teaching the students how to write their songs, I try to get them to think about what they would name the song based upon the way that they feel when they write it. Or, I ask them to play it for their family to see what they feel. I agree with what you said about the performer “thinking” they are being expressive, when it does not actually come across that way to their listener. I tell the students that they need to give me “goosebumps” when they play. Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. But, the whole process is so necessary and so enjoyable for us. Teaching the emotion of music is so tantamount, not for only joy of the listener, but also for the performer.

    Thank you again for this great post and blog, and I will be “stalking” your blog! And, thank you for stopping by mine!

    God bless,

    TK Goforth

  5. Gabrielle – Thanks for commenting. I like the teaching approach you describe…pinpointing what students need to improve on (in the case of your example, technique) and doing something to focus their attention to it. It can be equally fruitful to have student ignore technique at times and focus on the expression. One of my favorite Yo-Yo Ma quotes (I plan to blog about this idea at some point) is: “Perfection is not very communicative. However, when you subordinate your technique to the musical message you get really involved. Then you can take risks. It doesn’t matter if you fail.”

    Of course it’s probably a lot easier to downplay technique when you’re Yo-Yo Ma! :)

  6. Aaron – It’s funny that you focused in on that point. As I typed it, I hesitated, thinking “Am I overstating this? Expression is obviously not the only thing.” Ultimately, I figured, what the heck, maybe it’ll elicit more comments from people. So…mission accomplished! :)

    But again, I hear you. Expression may not be the only thing but I contend it’s the main thing. And I feel comfortable asserting that cross-culturally. That said, I do acknowledge that the way Western formal musicians tend to think about expression is quite unusual compared to many others in the world. But I’ve got an inkling these are the folks who are good enough to check out my blog here.

    Thanks for your comments. Keep ‘em comin’!

  7. I recently heard pianist Stewart Goodyear play with the Victoria Symphony and I had the most unusual experience. As I sat in the audience I felt as though I was magnetically drawn into Mr.Goodyear’s playing to the point where I almost did not hear the symphony. It was as though I was drawn into a tunnel and was riveted by his playing. It literally was magnetic.

    Was it his expressive playing? Was it his technique? I actually had a sense that it was a 6th sense performance ability he had. My aunt plays in the symphony and when I discussed it with her, she said she completely understood my response. She said that many of the symphony players found his presence to be charming and that it really seemed to infuse his playing as well. It wasn’t that he was playing in a more “expressive” way, it was that his presence had something we’d never experienced in a pianist before.

    None of us could quite put our finger on what it was. It was the kind of experience you always hope to have and pretty much never do at a symphonic concert.

  8. To understand, why music can make emotions, you shold read the essay “Vibrationg Molecules and the Secret of their Feelings.” This explains, for example, why minor sounds sad, but also, why minor can express other feelings sometimes. Also it explains the emotional charakter of many other chords. You can download the english translation for free :

    http://www.willimekmusic.homepage.t-online.de/homepage/Striving/Striving.doc

    Bernd Willimek

  9. In addition to my last post, I am announcing that the English translation of our work “Musik und Emotionen – Studien zur Strebetendenz-Theorie” is now published:
    Music and Emotions – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration
    You can get it free at the link:

    http://www.willimekmusic.de/music-and-emotions.pdf

    Bernd Willimek

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