Music and Emotion: There is More to Music than Meets the Ear

juslin 2Patrik N. Juslin, Department of Psychology, Uppsala University, Sweden

November 2014 – It seems like a paradox: that a ‘harmless’ cultural artifact such as music may arouse emotions – evolved mechanisms believed to have contributed to human survival throughout evolution. No wonder that emotional reactions to music have puzzled scholars from Charles Darwin and William James all the way to modern day ‘affective scientists’ (e.g., Juslin & Sloboda, 2010).

Following Arnold (1960), most theories of emotion have presumed that emotions are caused by multi-dimensional cognitive appraisals of events in relation to goals, plans, and motives. However, since purely instrumental music is often regarded as an abstract art form consisting of mere note patterns, ‘explaining emotional responses to instrumental music is a real problem for appraisal theories, and may be a real threat to the generality of appraisals as elicitors of emotion’ (Ellsworth, 1994, p. 195).


Many scholars have turned their focus to the musical notes themselves, attempting to find ‘direct’ links between surface features of the music (e.g., slow tempo) and aroused emotions. But such correlations do not really constitute an explanation: they simply move the burden of explanation from one level (‘Why does the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony arouse sadness?’), to another level (‘Why does slow tempo arouse sadness?’).


Musical emotions can never be explained by musical features alone – there is more to music than meets the ear. To understand musical emotions, we should look beyond the musical structure and consider the meaning extracted by the listener from the musical event (which involves information in the music, the situation, and the listener). We need to consider the underlying mechanism that ‘mediates’ between a musical event and an aroused emotion: a functional description of what the mind is ‘doing’ while music is being perceived (e.g., retrieving a memory). This functional process should not be confused with its implementation in the brain, or with the phenomenological experience it seeks to explain.


The most comprehensive attempt to date to explain how music arouses emotions is the BRECVEMA framework (named after the first letters of the eight mechanisms included; see Juslin, 2013). An evolutionary perspective on human perception of sounds suggests that the survival of our ancient ancestors depended on their ability to detect patterns in sounds, derive meaning from them, and adjust their behavior accordingly. Proceeding from this assumption, it is theorized that there are several induction-mechanisms, which range from simple reflexes to complex judgments and which are implemented by a number of only partially overlapping brain networks that developed in an evolutionary progression:


(1) Brain stem reflex, a hard-wired response to simple acoustic features such as extreme or increasing loudness or speed;

(2) Rhythmic entrainment, a gradual adjustment of an internal body rhythm (e.g., heart rate) towards an external rhythm in the music;

(3) Evaluative conditioning, a regular pairing of a piece of music and other positive or negative stimuli leading to a conditioned association;

(4) Contagion, an internal ‘mimicry’ of the perceived voice-like emotional expression of the music;

(5) Visual imagery, inner images of an emotional character conjured up by the listener through a metaphorical mapping of the musical structure;

(6) Episodic memory, a conscious recollection of a particular event from the listener’s past which is triggered by a musical pattern;

(7) Musical expectancy, a response to the gradual unfolding of the syntactical structure of the music and its stylistically expected or unexpected continuation; and

(8) Aesthetic judgment, a subjective evaluation of the aesthetic value of the music based on an individual set of weighted criteria (see below)

One implication of this framework is that because many of the psychological processes and mechanisms are implicit in nature, and may occur in parallel, music researchers cannot rely merely on phenomenological reports of music experience to explain how music affects emotions. Most of what goes on in the causal process may not be consciously available. Thus, it is necessary to conduct experiments in a laboratory setting, where target mechanisms can be manipulated so as to produce immediate behavioral effects on listeners. Recent experiments in our laboratory have aroused nostalgia through episodic memories, sadness through contagion, and anxiety through thwarted musical expectations (Juslin, Barradas, & Eerola, in press).


Though these results are promising, many complex issues remain. The greatest challenge is perhaps to account for the notion of ‘aesthetic emotions’: Are there emotions that emerge when and only when a work of art, such as music, is apprehended? A careful review of the empirical findings thus far shows that the states claimed by some researchers to be aesthetic emotions ‘unique’ to music (e.g., wonder, tenderness, nostalgia, tension) also occur in many other everyday contexts that do not involve music, or even works of art more generally. The notion of a ‘unique’ set of emotions evoked only by music can thus be rejected on empirical grounds. However, I believe the term ‘aesthetic emotions’ might retain its usefulness, if we define ‘aesthetic emotions’ as emotions caused specifically by an evaluation of the aesthetic properties of a work of art, for instance, admiration for the skill of the artist or the beauty of the composition. That is, ‘aesthetic emotions’ might be distinguished by their causes, rather than by their being unique states.


I recently made an attempt to outline a psychological model of aesthetic judgments of music, and explored how such judgments might be related to emotions (Juslin, 2013). It is assumed that the aesthetic judgment process (which is not necessarily explicit) begins with    a classification of the music as ‘art’ (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Schematic description of the aesthetic judgment process in music (Juslin, 2013)

This leads the listener to adopt ‘an aesthetic attitude’. This means that the listener’s attention is focused on the music, and that ‘aesthetic criteria’ (e.g., beauty, novelty) are brought to bear on the music. Perceptual, cognitive, and emotional inputs concerning the music are then filtered, through a relative weighting of the subjective criteria by the listener. This evaluation occurs in a continuous manner, although judgment outcomes (e.g., ‘this music is awesome!’) occur as ‘read-out’ episodes at specific points in time (e.g., ‘cued’ by significant moments in the music such as the ending of a jazz solo or the ending of a piece). Liking (or disliking) is a mandatory outcome of the judgment process, whereas emotion is an additional outcome if the result is that the music is judged as extraordinarily good (or bad) overall or on one of the criteria. Based on these ideas, we have recently been able to statistically model aesthetic judgments of music by individual listeners.


A multi-level theory of emotions such as BRECVEMA, with potential interactions among mechanisms, could help to explain the complex emotions experienced in relation to music. A multi-level theory may also help to explain ‘the apparent reality of aesthetic emotions’: Why do we respond to fictive objects as if they were real, even though we know they are not? A key part of the explanation is that our emotions can be evoked at multiple levels of the brain, some of which are implicit and independent of other psychological processes. Thus, emotional reactions to ‘fiction’ (e.g., theatre, movies, music) may be treated as ‘real’ at one brain level, while at the same time they are ‘discounted’ at other, ‘higher’ brain levels (which could ultimately explain the noted lack of ‘adaptive action’ undertaken). This is just one example of how the study of music can offer novel perspectives on emotions. Emotions can come about in a number of different ways, and we are only just beginning to explore the various processes involved. Current work appears to focus almost exclusively on a multi-dimensional goal appraisal as the underlying mechanism, but evidence of such appraisals comes mostly from ‘post hoc’ verbal reports that cannot truly distinguish different underlying causes. (The precise proportion of instances in everyday life where emotions are caused by, say, conditioned responses – as opposed to multi-dimensional goal appraisals – is simply not known.) Music, then, may not be unique in arousing emotions through a variety of underlying mechanisms which cannot be coherently subsumed under the single heading of ‘cognitive appraisal’. In nature, ‘functional redundancy’ (multiple means to an end) is the rule rather than the exception.



Arnold, M. B. (1960). Emotion and personality. Vol 1: Psychological aspects. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ellsworth, P. C. (1994). Levels of thought and levels of emotion. In P. Ekman & R. J. Davidson (Eds.), The nature of emotion: Fundamental questions (pp. 192-196). New York: Oxford University Press.

Juslin, P. N. (2013). From everyday emotions to aesthetic emotions: Toward a unified theory of musical emotions. Physics of Life Reviews, 10, 235-266.

Juslin, P. N., Barradas, G., & Eerola, T. (in press). From sound to significance: Exploring the mechanisms underlying emotional reactions to music. American Journal of Psychology.

Juslin, P. N., & Sloboda, J. A. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of music and emotion: Theory, research, applications. New York: Oxford University Press.

One Response to Music and Emotion: There is More to Music than Meets the Ear

  1. Stephan Thomas Vitas PhD November 30, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    There may be an attractive factor of safety enhancing emotions evoked by musical passages. In cinema, ballet, & opera we can allow ourselves to be fully absorbed into the action, however dangerous the depiction may be, secure in the realisation that we need not take part in that action in any way that may harm us. We only need watch it unfold & empathize with the characters from a distance. In symphony, the woven thread of an evolving emotional sequence carries us along, safely ensconced within ourselves on a private voyage, with or without our own visual imagery, & with permission to wander as far off from our daily reality as imagination can invent, with no censure to follow. As recent research has shown, even sad music can create within a pleasant sensation, given our removal from unpleasant verities. Flights of melody, wings of song.

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