Measuring the emotional power of music

How is it measured and what is the unit of expression

Do you listen to music with your eyes closed?” This question was recently posed on an audio forumIn its core, my assumption was, emotional elicitation. In other words, does closing your eyes, as you listen to music, help you draw more from it.


Answers followed: No dice. I do it with large speakers. Can’t focus in pitch dark. When I close my eyes, I go to sleep. Yes I do, with my head bobbing.


It’s a great question, that perhaps should’ve been  posed to those having much more sense then us audiophiles. A huge nock against us is that we really don’t care about music.  All we care about is what our gear sounds like. True, perhaps, for some of us, but I resent this definition. While I love my gear, for me, being an audiophile is all about musical engagement.


Patricia Barber, an American jazz singer, pianist, songwriter wrote on her YouTube page: “As I walked onto the stage and sat down at my piano, face to face, keyboard to keyboard, with Kenny (Werner) at his piano, I felt I had walked into a dream. From beginning to end, this musical evening was endowed with an other worldly grace. We both felt the tingle for hours after the last encore.”


Keep that word, tingle, in your mind for a while.


What is it about music’s ability to move us that is so unique?

Psychologists may have the answer.


Before we talk about emotional elicitation, let’s back up a bit. Emotional elicitation, after all, is a response. It’s a reaction to musical expressiveness. More plainly, how composers / musicians construct their pieces. What do they think about music’s power to arouse emotions in listeners. Whether composers work inside the context of traditional tonal harmony or outside it, they all offer a unique perspective on the relationship between music and feeling. With as many directions as there are composers, in their approach to making music, they all wish to convey a story. Be it of anger, happiness, pain or elation, their art attempts to convey a feeling to us.


So, how accurate are we in recognizing it?

This is what Marcel Zentner, Professor of Psychology, emotion and music being his main areas of research, said:


“It is no secret that music elicits ‘happiness’ or ‘positive affect’, so the merit lies not in stating the obvious, but in specifying musical happiness in all of its multiple forms.”


What he is trying to tell us is while we all relate to music, which generates some form of emotion within us, that emotion isn’t limited to simple types or categories, such as happiness or sadness, as we know them. Zentner further says: “it is obvious that these categories do not capture the richness of feeling in response to music.” In other words, these categories are too simplistic and limited in analyzing musical emotions.


Musicians are different

What about musicians, or musical individuals? Zentner’s research shows that these individuals do recognize vocally expressed emotions more accurately then those without musical ability. There is a clear link between musical and emotional abilities.


Still, generally speaking, topic of emotional elicitation remains quarrelsome because of indistinct nature of musical emotions.


Power of Music

What are the societal values of research? Examples of using music as therapeutic remedy for neurological or psychological deficits are endless. From parkinsonism, motor disorders to autism; but let’s focus on a specific one, that tells a powerful story about an American jazz singer-songwriter, musician, Melody Joy Gardot and her treatment after an accident:


While riding her bike in Philadelphia in November 2003 she was hit by an SUV that ran a red light. She suffered head and spinal injuries, and her pelvis was broken in two places. She was confined to a hospital bed for a year and had to remain lying on her back. She had to re-learn simple tasks, such as brushing her teeth and walking. She was left oversensitive to light and sound, requiring her to wear sunglasses most of the time. Gardot suffered short-term and long-term memory loss and had difficulty with her sense of time. She compared her recovery to “climbing Mount Everest every day” and often wakes with no memory of what she has to do that day.


The accident damaged the neural pathways between the two cortices that control perception and higher mental function. Encouraged by a physician who believed music would help heal her brain, Gardot began writing songs. (According to a paper by Norman-Haignere, Kanwisher, and McDermott in the journal Neuron, listening to music and trying to hum or sing can help the brain form new pathways.) 


Gardot learned to hum, then began to sing into a tape recorder, and was eventually able to write songs that referred to her rehabilitation.



Is Music Coercive

As we listen to music, we tap our feet, hum or sing along or even pretend to ‘conduct’ music. Some of us play along using an “air” instrument. Our limbs together with our facial expressions mirror the rapid changes in dynamics, unexpected cadences, changes in tempo, the melodic curves and feelings of what we are hearing. And get this, all this may be happening without our conscious or will. Makes you wonder, is the power of music coercive? Can it induce trance state?


I say it’s easy to be overcome by music. Have you ever been to a concert, played at excessive volume, having an overwhelming beat? Didn’t everybody move, as one, completely taken over? I certainly have, many times.


How about a whole genre of modern dance music called “Trance”? It is designed to have such effect, no?


Universal Language not all understand

There is such a thing as indifference to music. The (neurological) condition is called “musical anhedonia”. Research suggests approx. 5% of the population are affected by it. It isn’t a comprehension issue but an incapacity to derive any emotion, thus failure to exhibit any form of positive response, from listening to music.


Then, there is condition known as melophobia – fear of or aversion to music. Perhaps, it is one of the reasons Sigmund Freud, a neurologist and a founder of psychoanalysis, despised music. Here he is, in his own words:

“I may say at once that I am no connoisseur in art, but simply a layman…. Nevertheless, works of art do exercise a powerful effect on me, especially those of literature and sculpture, less often of painting. This has occasioned me, when I have been contemplating such things, to spend a long time before them trying to apprehend them in my own way, i.e. to explain to myself what their effect is due to. 


Wherever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.”



It has been suggested that Freud suffered from musicogenic epilepsy, form of epilepsy in which mild to severe seizures are induced by music.



Back where we started – can emotional power of music be measured? Yes. Scientists from various fields do it all the time. For us audiophiles and music lovers, remember the “tingle” I mentioned at the start of this article? The longer the tingle, the more power we drew from music. That is our measure.


In all societies of this planet of ours, music’s primary function is collective – to bring and bind people together. It possesses unique and profound power to connect cultures, locations, expressions of life and meaning. It is perhaps, a most significant construct of humans.



Halcro Audio



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