Musical Emotions Across Cultures


Becker.JudithJudith Becker, Professor Emerita, Ethnomusicology, University of Michigan 

November 2014 – Music and emotion are culturally situated and embodied. Any given musical event is situated in a particular historical moment and place, performed by, and listened to, by particular people. Each performer, each listener brings to the event a way of thinking and feeling about the music, a particular expectation of what will/should happen. These expectations are not merely individual but are culturally inflected. I have tried to capture their contribution to the experience of music by introducing the concept of a habitus of listening (Becker 2010), a set of conscious and unconscious musical propensities that affect how an individual reacts to music emotionally. Bourdieu, who coined the term habitus, likened a habitus to “a predisposition, tendency, propensity, or inclination” (Bourdieu 1977). One’s own habitus of listening is dependent upon culture, personal history, and the total context of the musical event.

Communal musical events are universally much more prevalent than is solitary music-making. From hunter-gatherers, to agriculturalists, to performers in highly industrialized societies, music performance is predominantly social (Nettl 1992; Ichikawa 1999; Locke 1996; Johnston 1989; Breen 1994). Most peoples of the world play, dance, and listen to music in the presence of others. Thus, emoting at a musical event is also not a solitary event, but one that is shared by other people, often in close physical proximity.

Our appreciation of music is embodied, in the sense that we engage with the music with our whole bodies, not just with our brains. This form of bodily engagement with music is known in the biological sciences as entrainment (David 2002; Clayton, Sager, & Will 2004; Clayton 2007). Entrainment is the synchronization of organisms to an external rhythm, a biological phenomenon that is found among all peoples and can also be found in insects such as fireflies and mosquitos (Gibson & Russel 2006). The simplest external example of human entrainment to music is foot-tapping. Entrainment is not found in any other primates besides humans and is believed to be the basis upon which our musicality arises (Merkel 2000; Patel, Iverson, Bregman, Schulz I. & Schulz, C. 2008; Honing 2012).

Our bodies resonate with both the music and the other bodies that may be present. A sort of contagion, palpable in any successful musical event, takes place between the emotions of the performers and the emotions of the listeners (Davis 2002; Janata, Tomic, & Haberman (2012); Stephan, Walter, & Wilutsky (2014); Feld & Keil 1994). Even after the music has gone silent, physical engagement with remembered sounds can continue. Margulis (2014) described the sensations of participants of a religious ceremony after a session of highly energetic music as follows:

“After an extensive period of joint and repetitive singing, it is almost impossible not to continue to experience the sound of the looped phrases, as well as the tactile sense of the muscle movements involved in producing those phrases. Each individual in the silent gathering persists in having a sense of “being sung,” even as no one moves or makes a sound.” (Margulis, p. 141)

The coordination of feeling, motion, and emotion characteristic of participatory musical/ dance events, and the social bonding that results from it, have been described as a contributing factor of human evolution (McNeil 1995; Freeman 2000). Mirror neuron research further strengthens the scientific basis for the “community of feeling” that is commonplace at a successful musical performance (Gallese 2001). We both influence and are influenced by the other bodies at a musical event.

The situated, embodied and social nature of musical emotions suggests the need for descriptive distinctions between varieties of the “same” music-induced emotion in different cultures and contexts. For instance, one often hears or reads about music making people ‘happy’ (Becker 2004, p. 52). And yet, musical ‘happiness’ has different inflections in different places.

In the city of Yogyakarta, in Central Java, Indonesia, to celebrate the birthday of Mohammed, once a year a grand festival (Grebeg Maulud/ Sekaten) takes place on the palace grounds of the prince. In the extensive courtyards of the palace, two very large and sacred gamelan ensembles are positioned on two raised platforms and play, simultaneously, different pieces, for several hours during each day of the festival. The gamelan ensembles are large and loud. The overlapping, non-coordinated sonorous sounds of the two ensembles contribute to creating a communal state of joy. Ramé is defined as a situation that is “noisy, bustling, alive with activity” (Horne 1974) and that evokes an extroverted, Javanese happiness at being in a large crowd enveloped by multiple sounds that are in not “in harmony.”

This musically inspired, communally cross-bodied emotion, ramé, within the context of a noisy religious festival in Central Java contrasts with the Arabic concept of tarab. A concert of traditional Arabic music, the context within which one may experience tarab, is “highly interactive and emotionally charged.” Tarab is a quiescent state of happiness that turns one’s attention inward, a musically induced state of ecstasy or enchantment that leads listeners to feel that time has come to a standstill (Racy 2003, p. 5-6). Tarab is, like ramé, also highly valued, and when the performer is skilled, also appears to sweep over an audience.

In certain parts of the US Midwest, there are regular gatherings of people of Polish ancestry who get together to dance and listen to polka music (Keil, C. 1995). These gatherings are, in part, a reaffirmation of their cultural ancestry, as well as a chance to reconnect with old friends and relatives. A certain amount of beer-drinking adds to the pleasures. The result is a particular kind of musical emotion called ‘polka happiness,’ an existential joy that envelops the participants of these events.

“The meaning of life is ‘polka happiness’. It’s the bliss when Li’l Wallys band is playing from the heart, emotions are overflowing, and people are dancing on the tables.” (Keil and Keil 1992)

Polka happiness, tarab and ramé are musically joyful emotions that are both personal and communal, and that spread throughout a crowd, examples of what the cognitive scientist, Nuñez, refers to as “supra-individual biological processes” (Nuñez 1997).

“By supra-individual biological processes I mean those processes relative to life that occur at a level beyond the autonomous beings one is studying . . . The processes intervening in the spread of a cholera epidemic are an example of [supra-individual biological] processes: the phenomenon is manifested in individuals (those who actually get sick are individuals) but it is realized through biological processes that take place beyond the sick individual (i.e. the network of biological processes that make the epidemics possible).

. . . another very simple example: speech accents . . . Accents – although manifested in individuals – have to do with biological processes that are realized at levels that go beyond the individuals, and that explain why speech accents are neither randomly distributed among populations nor are they genetically determined.” (Nuñez 1997, p. 155)

The spread of musical emotions at communal musical events is contagious, and like epidemics and language accents, it can also be understood as a biological process. While most music-making world-wide is communal and social (and possibly biological in the sense just described), in the Western industrialized world, music listening is commonly solitary. IPods, earbuds, and headphones are ubiquitous. The listener seems alone, and thus emotionally not affected by the presence of others.

Even so, the music often implies a social context such as a symphony orchestra, a rapper before a live audience, or a DJ at a club. A solitary basement musician producing a multi-track composite performance is likely to mentally invoke a social context. During music making for solitary pleasure, memories of first hearing or first learning the piece (when, where, and from whom) and previous experiences of playing and hearing it are evoked. Musical pieces, like performers, are saturated with contextual, social memory.

An exception may be the solitary iPod listener who consciously creates an alternate reality.

“I’ve walked that way for – I don’t know how many years . . . and it’s very boring, so having the music makes me see things that I would see everyday in a kind of new way – like a leaf falling or something. It might be like, “’Wow, a leaf has fallen!” (Herbert 2011, p. 58)

Such uses of musical listening may approximate the kind of consciousness that one might try to cultivate as a Zen practitioner. The claim can be made that isolated, non-social listening is a particular habitus of listening aiming for a heightened, meditative engagement with the world.

How should these reflections impact the scientific study of emotions and music? For one thing, the fact that experiencing music often involves simultaneously participating in a ritual, or some communal, highly interactive social event points to the need for emotion researchers to develop tools for pursuing research on musical emotions outside of the laboratory. The trouble with studying musical emotions exclusively in a laboratory setting where the musical input is recorded and the listener isolated is that we inevitably leave behind the communal element of musical experience that I have argued is so central for understanding the nature and importance of our experience of music.

Experiencing music in isolation stands to experiencing music in a culturally situated setting as inner speech stands to dialogue: although we can get a glimpse of what music and language are for without understanding how they connect people, the full communicative power of both only becomes available once we shift our perspective from the intrapersonal to the interpersonal, and explore music and language as communicative and situated social tools.



Becker, J. (2010). Exploring the habitus of listening: anthropological perspectives. In P. Juslin & J. Sloboda (Eds.), Handbook of music and emotion: theory, research, applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.127-157.

Becker, J. (2004). Deep listeners. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice (trans. R. Nice). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Breen, M. (1994). I have a dreamtime: aboriginal music and black rights in Australia. In S. Broughton, M. Ellingham, D. Muddyman, & R. Trillo (Eds.), World music: the Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides, pp. 655-662.


Clayton, M. (2007). Observing entrainment in music performance: video-based observational analysis of Indian musicians’ tanpura playing and beat marking. Musicae Scientiae 11(1), 27-59.


Clayton, M., Sager, R., & Will, U. (2005). In time with the music: the concept of entrainment and its significance for ethnomusicology. European Meetings in Ethnomusicology, Special Esem-Counter Point Volume.


Davis, S. (2002). Looking closely at the structure of embodied comportment in music playing experience: a phenomenological account of an Australian institutional band. Paper presented at the UNESCO Regional Pedagogical Conference on Arts Education in the Pacific in Fiji, 2002.


Feld, S. & Keil, C. (1994). Music grooves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Freeman, W. (2000). A neurobiological role of music in social bonding. In N.L. Wallin, B. Merker, & S. Brown (Eds.), The origins of music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 411-424.


Gibson, G. & Russell, I. (2006). “Flying in tune: Sexual recognition in mosquitoes.” Current Biology 16 (13): 1311-1316.


Gallese, Vittorio (2001). The ‘shared manifold’ hypothesis: From mirror neurons to empathy. Journal of Consciousness Studies 8 (5-7), 33-50.


Herbert, R. (2011). Everyday musical listening: absorption, dissociation and trancing. Burlington, VT/ Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing Co.


Honing, H. (2012). “Without it no music: Beat induction as a fundamental musical trait.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1252: 85-91.


Horn, E.C. (1974). Javanese-English Dictionary. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Ichikawa M. (1999). The Mbuti of Northern Congo. In R.B. Lee & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of hunters and Gatherers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 210-217.


Janata, P., Tomic, S.T., & Haberman, J.M. (2012). Sensorimotor coupling in music and the psychology of the groove. Journal of Exploratory Psychology: General 141, 54-75.


Johnston T. (1989). Song categories and musical style of the Yupik Eskimo. Anthropos 84, 423-431.


Keil, C. (1995). The theory of participatory discrepancies. A progress report. Ethnomusicology 39/ 19, 1-19.


Keil, C. & Keil, A. (1992). Polka happiness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.


Locke, D. (1996). Africa: Ewe, Mande, Dagbamba, Shona and BaAka. In J. Titon (Ed.), Worlds of music: an introduction to the music of the world’s people (3rd Edition). New York: Schirmer, pp. 83-144.


Margulis, E. H. (2014). On repeat: how music plays the mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


McNeil, W. (1995). Keeping together in time: dance and drill in human history. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.


Merker, B. (2000). “Synchronous chorusing and human origins.” In Wallin, N.L., Merker, B. & Brown, S. (Eds.), The origins of music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 315-327.


Nettl, B. (1989). North American Indian music. In. B. Nettl, C. Capwell, P. Bohlman, I. Wong, & T. Turino (Eds.), Excursions in world music. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, pp. 260-277.


Nuñez, R. (1997). Eating soup with chopsticks: dogmas, difficulties and alternatives in the study of conscious experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4, No.2, 143-66.


Patel, A. D., Iversen, J.R., Bregman, M.R., Schulz, I. & Schulz, C. (2008). “Investigating the human-specificity of synchronization to music.” Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition. Adelaide: Causal Productions.


Racy, A. (2003). Making music in the Arab world: the culture and artistry of tarab. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Stephan A., Walter, S. & Wilutsky, W. (2014). Emotions beyond brain and body. Philosophical Psychology 27 (1), 65-81.














Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Traffic Count

  • 312147Total reads:
  • 782Reads today:
  • 251402Total visitors:
  • 440Visitors today: