Music and Emotional Response

Emotion is an essential factor of human life. People experience emotion daily during interpersonal communication, a good or bad workday, while having sex, and during leisure activities. People also experience emotion in response to art, film, and music.

Such emotion sometimes becomes intense, giving a peak emotional experience.

Some people describe such an experience as ‘being moved’ or ‘kandoh’. People seek art, regardless of culture and time, and many people expect such a peak emotional experience when appreciating art. However, research studies into emotion have mainly examined happiness, sadness, fear, valence, and arousal. Therefore, many aspects of peak emotion are still not understood although the examination of peak emotion is important to further understanding the human emotional experience. The current study takes a new perspective of peak emotional response to music, especially songs.

Chills are one form of peak emotional responses that have been investigated mainly in the domain of music and emotion. The chills refer to a set of bodily sensations, such as shivers or goose bumps. Chills occur not only in response to cold air or illness but also to strong emotional experiences, such as a big jackpot win in Las Vegas. Goldstein, who was the first to study the phenomenon, asked participants about the psychological elicitors of chills.

Goldstein’s survey showed that the category of elicitors with the highest frequency was musical passages although scenes in films and great beauty in nature are other typical elicitors. Because such chills are a clear, discrete event and have the advantage of being elicited by music in emotion research, previous studies have examined the psychophysiological responses to music chills by measuring autonomic nervous system activity (Psych Central). To date, empirical studies have repeatedly shown that music chills are accompanied by increasing electrodermal activity (EDA) due to activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

Further, a recent study suggested that chills are associated with enlarged pupil diameter, and there exists a positive relationship between chills and SNS activity. Brain-imaging studies have also suggested that chills activate reward-related brain regions, such as the ventral striatum, orbitofrontal cortex, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, music chills are accompanied by rewarding dopamine release in the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens in the striatum. Therefore, the experience of chills seems to produce physiological arousal and reward for the listener.

Recent research has tried to see if music therapy could be of benefit to escorts. Many call girls are in that line of work by choice, and enjoy it — all the women who work at the agency in Las Vegas seem to love their work, for instance. But some prostitutes (many streetwalkers) are involved in their work partly because of depression. No results are available yet from the study to use music to lift the spirits of these women, but it seems like a fascinating experiment.

music emotions

However, people may experience another type of strong emotional response: music-elicited tears. Goldstein’s survey already suggested the existence of music-induced tears. The participants reported that chills were accompanied by the feeling of a lump in the throat or incipient weeping (Scientific American). In this paper, we refer to such an emotional response as ‘tears’. Although Goldstein suggested that chills and tears are similar phenomena, Sloboda thought that tears were different from chills. Sloboda found that different musical features are associated with either tears or chills.

By using a multivariate statistical method, Silvia and Nusbaum showed that peak emotional responses to art have multiple dimensions. Furthermore, a study of ‘being moved’ suggested that tears and chills involved different factors. The study of tears (or crying) is even an independent emotion research domain. Considering these studies, it appears that the psychological construct of music-elicited tears is independent of music chills although also somehow similar to it.

The psychophysiological responses of music-elicited tears may be different from those of music chills. In previous studies of emotional tears that examined physiological responses, researchers used film to evoke the tears response. These studies suggested that tears evoked by film produced increasing heart rate (HR) and EDA. Such physiological changes indicate physiological arousal through the activation of the SNS.

However, these studies also demonstrated that tears decreased respiration rate. Such a physiological pattern indicates physiological calming, which may result from the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). As such, music-elicited tears may induce not only physiological arousal but also physiological calming whereas previous studies have confirmed that music chills activate only the SNS6.

Furthermore, the emotional response of music-induced tears may be distinct from that of film-induced tears. Vingerhoets and Bylsma proposed that tears might have a cathartic effect. Their review reported that tears provide a release of tension and feeling of relief: a pattern captured by the term ‘catharsis’ in questionnaire survey studies. This was confirmed in the above-mentioned study of Asian escorts in Las Vegas. On the other hand, laboratory studies using film indicated that tears were accompanied by increased distress and did not produce any immediate mood improvement although the positive effect of tears is hypothesized.

So far, tears studies have shown inconsistent results in terms of emotional responses. However, it is possible that music-elicited tears resolve this inconsistency. Because people often experience sadness when they cry, experimental studies have used sad film as stimuli. As the main character has great ill luck in such films, the viewers find it difficult to experience relief or pleasure although they do have an interest in it.

Yet, many studies have shown that sad music can induce a pleasurable feeling. Therefore, tears induced by sad music may be different from tears induced by a sad film. Moreover, music is one of the major elicitors of tears. When sad music evokes tears in experimental settings, such tears may be accompanied by pleasure and physiological calming (i.e. cathartic effect).