Emotions and Music

Music: Why Do We React to It Emotionally?


Music in Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology: from Player and Performer to the Study of


I realized only after being exposed to it that music was a pleasurable experience.  I didn’t know why, but I did know that it was something that pleased me to be involved with as both a listener, and soon after, as a performer.  These experiences, through introspection, I recalled as being early childhood experiences: listening to the people who came together on Sunday mornings in our church building in the little town in north central Indiana in the late, late 1940s and early 1950s.  And that followed by taking instrumental lessons as a junior high student, and beginning to play an instrument in a school band in the late 1950s.  Then, too, I satisfied part of my national and state military obligation to the country as a trumpet-playing soldier in the 1960s, while I worked on my undergraduate degree at one of two different campuses of Indiana University (regional campus in Gary; mother campus in Bloomington).

Only at undergraduate degree work did I came at the study of the cultural artifact and function we call music.  And I came to it from two directions.  I took course work for my undergraduate at the mother campus (Bloomington) in the anthropology of music: ethnic music genre such as African tribal, Asian tribal and American Indian tribal musics; true 18th, 19th and 20th century American “folk” music, from both Black and White cultural traditions.  And later, and on my own among my age cohort, I became interested in the later mid-20th century popular culture “folk” music of the ilk of Pete Seeger, Joan Biaz and Dylan, Smothers Brothers, and on and on and on; all at the same time continuing my interest in classical and jazz genre.

So I was lucky: I had not just “performed” music in my student career; I had also taken course work in different genre of music, and looked at it through the eyes of anthropologists and even early ethnomusicologists (Alan Merriam).

But, life happened after that: career in librarianship and the teaching of information science in academia, retirement, and (thankfully) time for reflection (now!).

Now, Reflection to Put It All Together Again: Music through the Lens of Emotion

It has been difficult to organize all of the music from these different traditions (as well as more recent popular and jazz genre) into categories that make sense to me in terms of the different views toward music that exist.

I had noticed, though, that some psychologists in that last say, 30 years, had begun asked subjects (what is their most conveniently accessible population of subjects? American college students, that’s who!) what forms of music they attend to, and why they attended to it.  Then the psychologists had used some form of what is called factor analysis (or principle components analysis), to allow the underlying co-variations of “types” of music to become evident.

The beginning of this line of research that really hit it big in psychology was one team of psychologists, Peter Rentflow and Samual Gosling, at the University of Texas at Austin, in 2003.  That is when an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled “The Do Re Mi’s of Everyday Life: The Structure and Personality Correlates of Music Preferences“.  That article laid out a list of various types of music that the study’s 6 separate sub-studies’ subjects were to assist them in characterizing, allowing the two researchers to “group”  the various genre of music forms into cohesive sets: 

As you can see, the 14 types of music genre used were Blues, Jazz, Classical, Folk, Rock, Alternative, Heavy Metal, Country, Sound Tracks, Religious, Pop, Rap/Hip-Hop, Soul/Funk, and Electronic/Dance.  This was the early Aughts, remember, so don’t expect the latest fads in popular music, or crossover categories to have been included here.  But–the point is–see what the methodological features of this important 2003 report of research laid out for those of us interested in the emotional impacts of music on listeners.

Four Emotionally Reactive “Clusters” of Music Found by Rentfrow and Gosling


For instance, I was fascinated with the labeling Rentfrow and Gosling constructed to describe the four “clusters” of dimensions their factor analysis coaxed out of the data set.  Of course, post-hoc (“after the fact”), it sort of makes sense to us:

  1. Blues, Jazz, Classical and Folk were labeled as being “Reflective and Complex“, with the two highest loadings on that factor being Blues and Jazz, followed by Classical, and close behind, Folk.
  2. A second bunching-together of genre came from a category the researchers labeled as “Intense and Rebellious” music genre.  Here, all three high loadings denoted emotional intensity and a rebelliousness on the part of the listeners (younger, adolescent listeners): Rock, Alternative, and Heavy Metal.
  3. The third cluster in their data analysis was a category they labeled as “Upbeat and Conventional“.  From the four genre that grouped themselves together in this analysis, I personally would have labeled them as VERY traditional, usually major mode “happy talk”, but they didn’t ask me!  The genre, in any event, were: Country, Sound Tracks, Religious, and Pop.
  4. The last category that their factor analysis indicated as clustering several of the 14 original genre was the category they labeled as “Energetic and Rhythmic“.  Seems to me that another way of labeling this category would have been giving even more emphasis to the recurring, paced and percussive nature of this grouping: the BEAT.  These three genre (Rap-Hip Hop, Soul/Funk, and Electronica/Dance) all have the sense of definite, stressed musical metre–with metre (or meter, American spelling)  having the specific musical meaning of “the regularly recurring patterns and accents such as bars and beats. Unlike rhythm, beat onsets are not necessarily sounded [–as in poetry, likewise–] but are nevertheless implied by the performer and expected by the listener.”So I would not have used the word “rhythmic” here in the label for this category; I would have called the category “Energetic and Meterly“.  (remember, most musicians use the spelling “metre” referring to meter in music, because in music the vocabulary came from Europe with its centuries old traditions of music terminology.  Just understand while in the US we use “meter”, the rest of the world uses “metre”)


Daniel Levitin in the 2000s: Canadian Cognitive Pscyhologist & Neuroscientist


There is a Canadian journalist, Steve Paikin, who has been doing a “long-form” interview program out of Ontario since 2006 called The Agenda which “delves deep inside contemporary social, political, cultural and economic issues affecting Canadians through experts and newsmakers debating and analyzing the topics.”  Back in 2011 Paikin interviewed Daniel Levitin who had– a few years previously–written two rather popular books about music:

This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (2006)

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (2008)

The interview of Levitin by Paikin allowed Levitin to lay out his interest–as a cognitive neuroscientist–in the large questions: which came first, music or language; what is the difference between music and language; why music can be viewed in terms of evolutionary development, and what that meant about how we should study in; and so forth:

Steve Paikin from The Agenda, interviews cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin about “Why Music Moves Us” (Youtube video, 2011, 16:26)


Watching this interview is WELL worth your time.  He does a good job of asking and answering the big questions we have about emotions that we associate with what music we listen to.

It was the longer human evolutionary perspective of Levitin that gave me permission to look at music as an anthropological “artifact” of humanity, as I remembered that I had started to do in my undergraduate work with the musics of what anthropologists then were still calling pre-literate societies: musical traditions of the American Indian, music of specific African tribal societies and tribes, music of Asian societies, etc.  Too, I was introduced to the early “folk” traditions of American white regional groups and Black Americans: what we now label as American traditional musics.

Levitin, more recently than my undergraduate studies in the 1960’s, gave me permission to try to explain the whole panoply of music across time, and to ask questions about how and why it is found in all cultures and societies that we know about having ever existed: we have no reason to believe that ANY group of human beings manages to communicate without some socially interactive function of music.

Levitin’s view of music now fits nicely into my developed view of our species’ cognitive lives.  We have a brain that operates at a conscious and an unconscious matter, and I know (the upcoming elephant and its rider metaphor from Haidt) that we only tortuously attempt to explain our actions through our conscious “PR” personage, making us what we each consider “reasonable” explanations for what we just did.  We are, figuratively, the rider on our elephant (our unconscious decision-makers), following it wherever it heads.

Too, it is the unconscious mind where our emotional reactions are in charge, and that is where musical input hits us first.  We can not help but react to what we hear as “sad” music but in the same way we react when we are confronted with an occurrence we see with our eyes and hear with our ears as being “sad”.  And, we can recall (construct) images in our minds that recall those same emotions for us.

Conclusions: For You

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is the watch the Levitin interview above, and then get and read, first, The World in Six Songs, and second, This is Your Brain on Music, both by Levitin.

And that reminds me: don’t forget that YouTube can sometimes be the source of GREAT presentations (or interviews) by scholars on topics that are more likely to communicate ideas that were muddled through technical vocabulary that is not always universally understood by us.  Do a search in Youtube and find LOTS of videos about the ideas of Levitin: youtube daniel levitin




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