Music & Emotions – methodological issues

darwin_expression_cover(Apologies for the delay in posting this…) At last week’s colloquium we talked about studying music and emotions. To guide us through some of the conceptual thickets and around methodological potholes concerning music and emotions, Jonna Vuoskoski had prepared a presentation. The presentation (see below) did start a lively discussion, some of the topics can be seen on Jonna’s last slide. After Jonna’s presentation, Ezekiel Brockmann reported on his progress in studying emotion expression and perception, linked to timbre.

I couldn’t do justice to the conversations we had, if I tried to summarise them here – I’ll just elaborate on a couple of points that were made.

The first is the distinction between emotion perception in music and emotions induced by music. The first is easier to study, there are a number of models that summarise the attributions of emotional qualities that people say music holds. We have the “basic emotions” taxonomy (with happiness, sadness, anger, fear etc.) and various dimensional models (e.g. the one with two dimensions, arousal and valence). Of course, there are interesting and so far unanswered questions regarding emotion perception, but (at least to me) the more interesting side of things is the emotions felt when listening to or playing music, ie. the emotions induced by musical activities.

There is the philosophical question of whether you can perceive an emotion without actually feeling it, or vice versa, or how the two sides map onto each other. While the basic emotions and simple dimensional models seem to be good for the perceived emotions, the emotions induced by music tend to be different. One way they are different is that they are more varied, seem to be more individual, more entangled with layers of cultural and individual associations. Jonna pointed out recent research by Marcel Zentner, who with his collaborators has produced a taxonomy for emotions evoked by music (pdf).

The other point I wish to make was raised in the after-colloquium discussion at the pub (more people should join these, they could prove to be very productive… 🙂 ) and that is the origin of emotions. One way to put it is that they are descendants of organisms’ “shortcut” ways of reacting to events in their environment. They are “quick and dirty”, we can tell that accuracy has often been sacrificed for speed in them, as people startle easily even when there is no need, or experience physiological arousal over stimuli that require no fight nor flight. Emotions prime our bodies for a response, and these quick reactions have survival value.

For anyone interested in this aspect of emotions, I can recommend good old Chuck Darwin, and his book Expression of emotions in men and animals – the latest edition comes with Paul Ekman’s commentary, and is well worth a read. It is a seminal work, and would be momentous if not overshadowed by the “Origin of Species” by the same author. But what really makes this recent edition so interesting is the foreword and commentary by Paul Ekman, the renowned 20th century psychologist and student of expression of emotions in man. “Ekman’s faces” are still used in emotion perception research, and his comments on Darwin’s text form a dialoque that makes a fascinating read.

And here are Jonna’s slides:

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