One of my favourite music & mind speeches. Dr. Aniruddh D. Patel of the Neurosciences Institute, discusses what music can teach us about the brain, and what brain science, in turn, can reveal about music.
You can find many of his interesting papers here.
Music has the power to induce specific emotions to the listener. Just of think of its use on movies. Try to imagine how the classic shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” would be without music or with a different tune. If the wrong song had been used, it could have easily ruined the scene (the famous tune was composed by Bernard Herrmann btw).
Even back in ancient Greece philosophers like Aristotle and Plato had realised that music can affect human emotion. According to them, certain structural factors determine whether a song evokes unpleasant, pleasant or other moods to the listener.
Nowadays, music is one of the most hyped subjects in psychology and cognitive neuroscience. It seems that ancient Greeks were half right. Scherer & Zentner in their 2001 study suggested that the relationship between music and emotion is determined by 4 factors: the structural features, the performance features, the listener features, and the contextual features.
In this post I’m going to talk about the structural features and ignore the other three factors. Most studies suggest that the emotional valence of music depends mostly on the mode (major/minor) and the tempo (slow/fast) of the tune. Mode refers to the specific subset of pitches used to write a given musical excerpt and tempo to the number of beats per minute in a song. Major mode and fast tempo are associated with “happy” songs and minor mode and slow tempo with “sad” songs. Other emotions such as fear and anger are less easily studied, but can be also recognised by the listeners. These seem to be induced by other features apart from mode and tempo. Fear excerpts seem to have fast tempo, dissonant harmonies and vast variations of dynamics and pitch.
Interestingly, it seems that children use the same properties as adults (i.e. tempo and mode) in determining whether music sounds “happy” or “sad”. Dalla Bella, Peretz, Rousseau & Gosselin showed that children are capable of judging the emotional content of music from the age of 5 using tempo as the sole determinant. Older children (from 6 to 8 years old) use mode as well as tempo, just like adults. Recent studies show that even newborn babies have the ability to discriminate between happy and sad songs. These findings suggest that infants are born with the ability to perceive music. However, it’s really hard to tell if this ability is really innate or learned during the last months of pregnancy, during which the infant can perceive certain stimuli from the external environment.
Scherer, K., R. & Zentner, M., R. (2001). Emotional Effects of Music: Production Rules.in P. N. Juslin & J. A. Sloboda (ed.). Music and emotion: theory and research. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 362-393.
Khalfa, S., Roy, M., Rainville, P., Dalla Bella, S. & Peretz, I. (2008). Role of tempo entrainment in psychophysiological differentiation of happy and sad music?. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 68, 17–26
Sugimoto, T. & Hashiya, K. , 2006-06-19 “The Recognition of Affective Values of the Music in Infants: Infants Motoric Response to Music” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the XVth Biennial International Conference on Infant Studies, Westin Miyako, Kyoto, Japan