Scarlet & Grey
Ohio State University
School of Music

Music and Emotion:

Thoughts on Music and Affect

David Huron


When asked why they listen to music, the most common response people give is that they like the way music makes them feel. If it is true that music's importance lies in the feelings it evokes in listeners, then it suggests that one should approach the study of music by relating musical organization to human emotion.

While other approaches to describing and analysing music may have value, music scholars are remiss if we fail to examine music from the perspective of emotion.

This document assumes that the reader is familiar with the principal discoveries in the general field of emotion research. A suitable summary is available in another web document.

Emotions -- Big and Small

A problem with the existing research literature concerning emotion is what might be called the emphasis on "big" emotions: fear, anger, joy, surprise, etc. These "big" emotions are not commonly evoked while listening to music. Music rarely evokes fear, anger, or genuine surprise. And while music can bring a listener to a point of elation, much of the music people enjoy is capable only of evoking a somewhat subdued "joy".

There is, I think, a domain of feelings whose effects are more subtle and much less obvious. We might call these miniature feelings "micro-emotions."

Negative Micro-Emotions

Recall, for example, Randolph Nesse's description of those rare individuals who are born without pain sensors. These individuals typically die young. The problem is not that they succumb to major illness such as appendicitis. Instead, they suffer the consequences of serious circulation problems, arising because they don't frequently change posture.

Negative micro-emotions are evident in the following everyday annoyances:

Auditory Annoyances

Similar annoyances (micro-emotions) can be found in purely auditory phenomena:

Positive Micro-Emotions

There are exist small pleasures. Examples:

What evidence do we have that micro-emotions have physiological concomitants? Recall tachycardic versus bradycardic heart-rate responses. Tachycardic responses are indicative of mild annoyance while bradycardic responses are indicative of mild interest. These responses can occur many times per minute.


  1. classical conditioning provides one of the simplest and most pervasive ways we learn

  2. conditioning is automatic, valenced, indiscriminant and correlative

    Valenced: conditioning depends on the linking of stimuli with negative or positive reinforcements. Said another way, conditioning happens when we are emotionally engaged (either positively or negatively).

    Automatic: conditioning occurs whether we want it to or not. No conscious thought is required for conditioning to occur.

    Indiscriminant: we associate all aspects of the environment with the negative or positive conditioning.

    Correlative: conditioning occurs without our understanding of causal relationships. When I feel nauseous, the cause may or may not be the food I have eaten. Nevertheless, the body will assume that any coinciding stimulus, may be important.

    The indiscriminant nature of classical conditioning is probably the best approach to learning, since we cannot be certain of the causal connection.

  3. oxytocin -- we learn best when limbic activation occurs

  4. "darling their playing our song" phenomenon

Sound Symbolism

Within a given culture, some sounds appear repeatedly and accrue specific learned associations. These associations can be so specific that the sounds acquire the status of symbols.

In many cases these sound symbols will have emotional connotations.

Some examples:
  1. descending major third of a doorbell (`ding dong')
    (association: welcome)
  2. wailing siren (police or ambulance)
    (association: emergency - alert)
  3. opening motive/theme of Beethoven's fifth symphony
    (association: seriousness of purpose)
  4. beginning of the national anthem
    (association: nationalism)
  5. minor triad
    (association: sadness)

Anticipatory/Statistical Learning

In classical conditioning, learning is linked to some sort of limbic arousal. That is, conditioning arises when the stimulus is linked to a negative or positive feeling.

However, there is another kind of learning that takes place that is not dependent on limbic arousal. In statistical learning, we can learn to respond to "neutral" stimuli as well.

This kind of learning is important, not for what events "mean," but what events presage -- that is, what events imply may occur in the future.

  1. the ability to anticipate future events is important for survival since we can better prepare an appropriate behavioral response. Brains have evolved mechanisms through which the probabilities of future events can be learned.
  2. we learn by simple exposure to the environment (Saffran, et al, 1999)
  3. We are sensitive to the simple frequency of occurrence of events in the environment.
  4. We are also sensitive to the conditional probabilities of events: given event A, event B might have a high probability of occurring, whereas event C might have a low probability of occurring (Saffran, Johnson, Aslin & Newport, 1999).
  5. Exposure Effect: We prefer familiar stimuli.

    Notice, however, that all of the experiments studying the exposure effect have avoided high levels of repetition. It is possible (probable) that highly repetitive stimuli lead to habituation and boredom.
  6. Meyer: expectations fulfilled and expectations thwarted
  7. Long-term and short-term expectations can conflict. For example, we expect a dominant chord to have a high likelihood of being followed by a tonic chord. Yet, personal familiarity with a particular musical work might lead us to expect a deceptive cadence.
  8. People can listen with the "wrong" expectations. For example, experienced musicians listen to 12-tone music differently from non-musicians. Non-musicians continue to expect pitch continuations that fit within some tonal context.

While Meyer pointed out the importance of expectation in musical experience, the subject of expectation has received comparatively little attention by researchers in the field of emotion.

Surprise does not always evoke a "startle response"; most "surprises" may be better described as mini-emotions.