How Do We Recognize Emotions In Music?

Music elicits strong emotions, so much so that it is called “The language of emotions”.  You might have seen the age-old viral video showing a baby crying in response to a “sad” song, before even learning to talk!

Clearly, these emotions are not conveyed through lyrics since we recognize them in background scores as well. Even people without any musical training can recognize emotions in music, showing that we are born with this ability.

Further, we all experience the similar feelings in response to certain musical pieces. We would all agree that listening to “The Imperial March” from Star Wars sends chills down our spine, while “Yoda’s Theme” instills a sense of hope.

Ever wondered how we are able to accomplish this feat of recognizing emotions in music?

listening music

A listener sensing emotions in music (Photo credits : Pexels)

Investigating emotions in music

Scientists studying the psychology of music investigate emotions evoked by it using self-reports from listeners. There are two levels in which emotions operate through music. The first one is the emotion that the music is designed to convey to the listener, otherwise known as the “perceived emotion”. The other is the emotion that a listener feels by listening to the music, called the “felt emotion”.

Sad and happy music – what is the difference?

Music has been known to induce a variety of emotions. However, the most common classification of emotions in music is dichotomous – happy and sad.

Music is commonly labeled by listeners as either happy or sad

Music is commonly labeled by listeners as either “happy” or “sad” (Photo Credit : envato)

Studies have attempted to elaborate on what differentiates sad music from happy music. Scientists do this by comparing acoustic properties of musical pieces that are consistently reported by listeners as sad or happy. 

The results of such analyses provided some interesting insights. Music that is slow in rhythm and uses minor scale was seen to arouse sadness in listeners. On the other hand, faster songs using a major scale made listeners feel happy. Several other factors in music were also found to arouse feelings of sadness, such as low pitch and narrow pitch range, low sound level, and low energy execution.

You may notice that a song like “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, which makes us feel upbeat, has a faster tempo and uses major tones as compared to Celine Dion’s “My heart will go on” which makes the listeners weepy!

These results suggested that our ears differentiate emotions in musical pieces using certain fixed acoustic properties. This is perhaps because the same acoustic features in language evoke happy or sad emotions in us. Therefore, we sense emotions in music similar to sensing them while listening to speech.

Brain responses to happy and sad music

Musical pieces are distinguished as happy or sad at the auditory level in the ear. But does the brain respond to the two types of music differently?

A recent study looking at brain activity during music listening showed that sad and happy music elicit different responses in the brain. The participants of this study had their brains scanned while listening to “sad” and “happy” music. Findings showed that happy music gave rise to activity in brain regions linked to ‘dopamine’ – a neurotransmitter (a brain chemical) released in response to pleasurable stimuli.

Dopamine, when released in the brain, makes us feel happy or euphoric, improving our mood. Dopamine not only makes eating your favorite candy pleasurable but also listening to your favorite song!

On the other hand, sad music increased activity in brain regions linked to processing emotions such as the amygdala. This is an almond-shaped structure in the brain that helps us feel a wide range of emotions such as sadness and fear. It is the amygdala that signals you to run away from a snake, and it can also make you cry when you hear a sad song.

brain with headphone

The human brain has different responses to “happy” and “sad” music

Thus, the brain provides “pleasure” in response to happy music, and makes us “emotional” while listening to sad music. Therefore, while our ears do a primary classification of emotions in music, the final answer comes from the brain.

Final note

Music is often classified as “happy” or “sad” by listeners but it has been seldom questioned as to how we recognize these emotions in the absence of cues such as lyrics. Findings from studies on the psychology of music suggest that our ability to recognize emotions in music is an extension of our ability to sense emotions in speech.

Related Articles
Related Articles

The acoustic features of human speech that we find “sad” or “happy” are also found in “sad” and “happy” music. This has led scientists to believe that the uniquely human ability to enjoy music and “feel” emotions in it originated as a result of our ability to sense intonations in speech known as “prosody”. Thus, music is in some ways “a happy accident” that occurred on the evolutionary journey of humans developing language.

Help us make this article better
About the Author

Dr. Sarika Cherodath holds a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from National Brain Research Centre, India, and has expertise in Cognitive Neuroscience. She has a deep appetite for all things Biology and is passionate about taking knowledge from science to the masses, to improve day-to-day lives. She loves exploring new languages, music, and culture, and picking up new life skills. She spends her leisure hours crocheting and chilling with her cat.

.
Science ABC YouTube Videos

  1. Emotions and the Brain: What is the limbic system?Emotions and the Brain: What is the limbic system?
  2. Dark Matter Explained: What Exactly is Dark Matter? | A Beginner’s Guide to Dark MatterDark Matter Explained: What Exactly is Dark Matter? | A Beginner’s Guide to Dark Matter
  3. What Exactly is a Tesseract? (Hint: Not a Superhero Stone)What Exactly is a Tesseract? (Hint: Not a Superhero Stone)
  4. Respiratory System: From Inspiration to Expiration Explained in Simple WordsRespiratory System: From Inspiration to Expiration Explained in Simple Words
  5. What is the Fibonacci Sequence & the Golden Ratio? Simple Explanation and Examples in Everyday LifeWhat is the Fibonacci Sequence & the Golden Ratio? Simple Explanation and Examples in Everyday Life
  6. Digestive System: Ingestion to Egestion Explained in Simple WordsDigestive System: Ingestion to Egestion Explained in Simple Words
  7. What is Radioactivity and Is It Always Harmful: Explained in Really Simple WordsWhat is Radioactivity and Is It Always Harmful: Explained in Really Simple Words
  8. What is DNA and How Does it Work?What is DNA and How Does it Work?