Music psych walkthrough: How music makes us feel


This post is rather different to the existing material in my blog. It’s longer, and it’s on a different subject area. Generally, I’ve blogged about the experience of doing a PhD (and some ways to make that experience more fun and productive). This is actually about my own area of research (or at least part of it).

I thought it’d be nice to do some summaries of music psychology papers, to make it easier to learn about the field without reading lengthy articles. Let’s call them music psychology walkthroughs. If you like them, a) go and read the full paper, if you have access, and b) leave a comment. If I see interest in the idea, I’ll write more of these.

Let’s go!

In Winter 2012, the BBC aired “How music makes us feel” as part of its Imagine series. Presented by Alan Yentob, the programme heard from a variety of people for whom music’s ability to elicit emotions holds a key role in their personal and professional lives.

The programme also included excerpts of a lecture by Professor Patrik Juslin, a leading researcher in the field of music and emotion from Uppsala University. Juslin explained that while one focal point in this field is predicting which musical features could be responsible for provoking different emotional reactions, his area of interest extends to hypothesising what psychological mechanisms are responsible for these emotional reactions.

Together with colleague Professor Daniel Västfjäll, Juslin authored a paper on this topic, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and entitled “Emotional  responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms” (2008). The article discusses six mechanisms, although not all of these were covered in the BBC programme. This post will give a brief overview of Juslin and Vastfjall’s descriptions of these mechanisms.

The mechanisms

1) Brain stem reflexes

“Emotion is induced by music because one or more fundamental acoustic characteristics of the music are taken by the brain stem to signal a potentially important and urgent event.” (p. 564)

The brain stem represents an ancient part of the brain, and as such it is responsible for scanning the environment for danger. Sudden or powerful noises can signal potential danger, and as such can trigger reflexes in the brain stem.  Music which is particularly loud or fast, or which has sudden changes, are hypothesised to activate the brain stem and thus produce heightened physiological arousal and feelings of unpleasantness. Similarly, music which is quiet and slow, without sudden changes, should promote a pleasant state of relaxation.

2) Evaluative conditioning

“Evaluative conditioning (EC) refers to a process whereby an emotion is induced by a piece of music simply because this stimulus has been paired repeatedly with other positive or negative stimuli.” (p. 564)

An example of evaluative conditioning would be listening to a specific song during a favourite activity every day. Hearing that song outwith this context might still evoke the positive emotions associated with that activity.

3) Emotional contagion

“Emotional contagion refers to a process whereby an emotion is induced by a piece of music because the listener perceives the emotional expression of the music, then ‘mimics’ this expression internally… [by] peripheral feedback from muscles, or a more direct activation of the relevant emotional representations in the brain.” (p. 565)

Similarities have been found between how emotion is conveyed in speech and music, meaning that a sad piece of music may be reminiscent of the speech of someone expressing sadness. However, music can go even further than speech in terms of speed, intensity and timbre and as such is sometimes referred to as a “super-expressive voice” (Patrik N Juslin, 2001).

4) Visual imagery

“Visual imagery refers to a process whereby an emotion is induced in a listener because he or she conjures up visual images (e.g. of a beautiful landscape) while listening to the music.” (p. 566)

This mechanism describes a process whereby the listener may experience mental images in response to the music. In turn, these mental images can trigger emotions. Different mental images can result in different emotions.

5) Episodic memory

“Episodic memory refers to a process whereby an emotion is induced in a listener because the music evokes a memory of a particular event in the listener’s life.” (p. 567)

Rather than the repeated, subconscious pairing of evaluative conditioning, episodic memory applies to one emotion-laden memory. When the memory is evoked (in this case, by music), the associated emotion is also evoked, along with the physiological reactions.  An example of this is used in the film Silver Linings Playbook (Russell, 2012). The film’s main character has recently experienced dramatic marital problems. Whenever he hears a  song which was played at his wedding, he undergoes high levels of distress.

6) Musical expectancy

“Musical expectancy…refers to a process whereby an emotion is induced in a listener because a specific feature of the music violates, delays, or confirms the listener’s expectations about the continuation of the music.” (p. 567)

Differing from the brain stem reflex mechanism, which relates to sudden, powerful noises, musical expectancy relies on syntax and structure, and relates to the listener’s previous experience of the musical style in question. Induced emotion is based on tension and resolution in the music, and whether the listener’s expectations are confirmed or violated. Without sufficient exposure to this style, musical expectancy will not be activated.  As such, it is highly cultural, and is based on learning.  Research shows that brain regions activated during violations in musical syntax are similar to those activated during language syntax violations.


Juslin and Västfjäll stress that these are only hypothesised mechanisms for how music evokes emotions, not recognised processes. Rather than being activated in isolation, these mechanisms are likely to work in tandem to give a fuller musically-emotive experience. With the growing amount of research on the possible health benefits that musical emotions can bring, this article provides a welcome insight into how these emotions are evoked.


Juslin, P. N. (2001). Communicating emotion in music performance: A review and a theoretical framework.

Juslin, P. N., & Vastfjall, D. (2008). Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms (vol 31, pg 559, 2008). Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(6), 751-751.

Russell, D. O. (Writer). (2012). Silver Linings Playbook.


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