Editor’s Column – Musical Emotions Issue


me with kiki

Andrea Scarantino, Department of Philosophy and Neuroscience Institute, Georgia State University

Have you ever found yourself moved while listening to Albinoni’s Adagio, with its heartrending trumpeting sequence? How about irresistibly pulled to the dance floor by James Brown’s Sex Machine? Do you get cheerful when listening to Benny Goodman’s Minnie’s in the money? Does the musical theme from Jaws, a movie that has forever ruined swimming in open waters for many of us, make you afraid? If you answered “yes” to any of these queries, this issue of Emotion Researcher is for you.

The central question before us is to understand why and how music elicits emotions. This is an especially challenging question, because many of the default explanatory strategies we put to work to make sense of emotions appear distinctively inadequate when applied to musical emotions.

For example, we tend to think that emotions are elicited by appraisals that register how stimuli impact our goals, but what exactly are the goals impacted by music? Is the appraisal system being by-passed by musical stimuli, or do musical stimuli elicit a special type of appraisal?

We also tend to think of emotions as having biological and social functions. But what exactly is the biological function of getting sad or cheerful when listening to a certain pattern of notes?


Should we think of musical emotions as useless vestiges like the appendix? Or are they rather an expression of our ability to detect ecologically meaningful patterns in sounds, and adjust our behaviors accordingly, as an animal does when hearing the sounds of a familiar predator? Or is perhaps their primary function social, and to be understood in the context of communal experiences of music consumption?

It is also far from clear what makes music, especially instrumental music, capable of generating a specific emotion rather than another. Why do we get sad rather than happy when we hear Albinoni’s Adagio? And what exactly is it about Benny Goodman’s Minnie’s in the money that makes us cheerful? Whose emotions are being expressed anyway? Are they the emotions of the musicians? Or those of the music’s author? Or perhaps those of an imaginary person we concoct in our heads while listening?

These are some of the questions that four eminent experts on emotions and music will tackle in this issue. We begin with psychologist Patrik Juslin, who has developed what is arguably the most careful and systematic analysis of how music impacts emotions to date. Juslin argues that there is no unique mechanism through which music impacts emotions, but rather a roster of mechanisms with different evolutionary origins that are served by different brain circuits. An implication of Juslin’s analysis is that, since several of the eliciting mechanisms are not consciously available to the emoting subject, we cannot simply rely on self-report methods for the study of appraisal of musical stimuli.


Judith Becker, an ethnomusicologist, takes us away from the lab and into the field, emphasizing the communal dimension of our experience of music across cultures, and the role of physical engagement and emotional contagion in shaping the way we react to music emotionally. Her primary recommendation to students of musical emotions is to pay attention to the interactive aspects of musical experience, which are in danger of being neglected when we present isolated experimental subjects with recorded sounds detached from their public context of production.


Philosopher Jenefer Robinson gives us a detailed overview of the main live issues in the philosophy of music and emotions, exploring whether emotion plays a role in musical understanding, how music expresses and arouses emotions, and whether the expression and/or arousal of emotions is important to the aesthetic value of music. Her core proposal is that the most convincing explanation of the powerful grip music has on us is that we imagine the emotions being expressed by music as being the emotions of an imaginary “persona” to which we can emotionally relate.


Neuroscientist Patrik Vuillermier, finally, provides us with an overview of what we have learned about how the brain responds to music. He suggests that peaks of pleasure experienced while listening to music correlate with release of dopamine in ventral regions of the striatum, and increased activity in both striatum and insula, accompanied by transient reductions in activity in amygdala, anterior hippocampus, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Vuillermier also explores whether the emotions elicited by music are better understood on a dimensional or a basic emotion framework, and whether our understanding of how the brain implements musical emotions can be used for therapeutic purposes.


The Young Researcher Spotlight is on linguist Maïa Ponsonnet, who studies aboriginal languages in Australia, with special focus on Dalabon, an endangered language currently spoken by about a dozen people in the world. Ponsonnet has lived in the Dalabon community for extended periods of time, investigating emotion vocabulary, metaphors, intonation and other prosodic features of the Dalabon language. Check out her discoveries on the somewhat peculiar ways in which Dalabon speakers communicate their emotions.


ISRE’s President Arvid Kappas takes us on a journey through different epochs of emotion research, wondering whether the current golden age of emotion research is here to stay. On a more practical side, in his column Kappas outlines the rationale for having a new forum of online discussion for ISRE members, and calls for nominations for the role of ISRE Forum Host.


We also have a guest column from David Sander, program chair and organizer extraordinaire for ISRE 2015. Check out his column to figure out what the program committee is looking for, and who the three keynote speakers are (You will be pleased!).


Last but not least, this issue of Emotion Researcher features a wide-ranging interview with Lisa Feldman Barrett, one of the leading affective scientists in the world, who generously shared anecdotes of her life, pictures, recipes (check out her challah bread!), advice for young researchers on how to get grants and, most importantly, a detailed discussion of the origin and current prospects of her own influential theory of emotions as situated conceptualizations.


As usual, be in touch with ideas for future issues, information about upcoming conferences, reports on especially promising young researchers, and anything else you think may be of interest to the emotion community. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday (if you happen to celebrate it)!

PS Click here for the PDFs of this issue

Previous Editor’s Columns

Editor’s Column – Emotions and Social Engagement Issue

Editor’s Column – Understanding Disgust Issue

Editor’s Column – Emotional Brain Issue


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