How Music Can Portray Emotions
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Published: Mon, 18 Sep 2017
Torey A. Brooks
Music listeners of all ages have seen many studies questioning whether music can consistently express emotions. Far less attention has been devoted to the actual content of the music’s communicative process for our emotions and the way it makes us want to move to the beat. The research will take into consideration whether music can possibly convey emotional content. Layers of various harmonies give listeners the ability to perceive more intricate emotions; “though the expressions are less cross-culturally invariant and more dependent on the social context and/or the individual listener” (Juslin, 2013). These emotions are expressed in ways like laughing, crying, or physical movements which as well as the music, also stimulates our brain.
Keywords: music, emotion, expression, communication, movement
Music affects everyone on some level. Some listen to it routinely whereas some only listen occasionally. We hear music in our cars, in elevators, at the doctor’s office, or while we are on hold; it is an integral part of our lives whether we think about it or not. There are many things that excite our brains’ reward centers, among them are our emotional responses to music and how that music makes us want to shake our bodies. While we can experience a temporary thrill from a high-speed car chase on a movie screen, a piece of music can cause varying emotions depending on its meaning for us on any given day. It is thought that the creation of music was done through rhythmic movements such as the tapping of feet. Pleasure centers of our brain are connected to our motor sensory. Watching others dance, not only affects our wanting to move, it brings about a euphoric appeal to the music because it is affecting us emotionally. Music not only brings about deep expressive experiences, it causes us to want to move to the beat and whether we can openly acknowledge it or not, uplifts our souls as is evidenced by the millions of videos of individuals who post their singing and moving adventures related to the music they listen to.
In one sense, musicians are not necessarily expressing their own emotions as most music is written by other artists; they are feeling as well as expressing the music’s emotions. Per Why do we like to dance–And move to the beat? (2008), the term ’emotional expression’ typically means that listeners perceive the music’s emotional meaning. Music is a way for humans to express their life’s current state of mind. While a listener could perceive any emotion in a piece of music, not all perceptions are going to be the same which is why there are numerous styles of music available. “Evidence suggests that sensory experiences are also motor experiences” (Why do we like to dance–And move to the beat?, 2008). So, it is noticeable that while someone is watching another person dance, our brain’s movement areas are being unconsciously activated and we are predicting how a dancer will move based on how the music makes us feel. As noted by Juslin (2013) “there is some minimum level of agreement among different listeners regarding the expression, presumably because there is something in the music that produces a similar impression in many listeners.” When a composer writes music, he does so hoping that the listener will find an intrinsic value and enjoyment so they will continue to listen to the music. While there might be a specific reason behind the music composition, the music can mean way more to many listeners than the composer who wrote it. “The term basic or discrete emotions occurs frequently in the music psychology field today, typically referring to certain emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear, but without any deeper consideration of the theoretical basis of the concept (Juslin, 2013). Music that was written with emotions beyond those Juslin noted, are written for the personal experiences that the composer has felt in his own life and appear to do well with regards to being listened to or requested for play on the radio. Music that has a catchy tune, yet does not touch us emotionally fade quickly into what are known as one hit wonders. Most musicians try to compose their music around life situations that have affected them in an emotional way. They hope to convey those emotions to others who can share in the same feelings or at least empathize with them. Music that touches our emotions of love, loss, healing, or whatever we look for in music, is music that will always touch our hearts. Studies regarding how music taps into our emotions rank the top ten emotion terms as “happiness, sadness, anger, fear and love, tenderness, and this tendency was similar across the three data sets, despite differences in samples (musicians vs. students, various countries) and selections of emotion terms (ranging from 32 to 38 terms)” (Juslin, 2013).
When I began this paper, I actively kept a count of how many times I heard music throughout the day that I did not initiate; it averaged thirty-two occasions in one day. After that test, I began to look at how the music affected me on these noninitiate occasions. It was at the bank and lobby music was playing or I was waiting in line for my lunch and they had music playing in the background. Unconsciously, I caught myself humming or signing along and if the time was long enough, I caught myself moving to the hits. Standing in the bank humming brought me to a time years ago when I used to volunteer in a children’s ministry. I can remember assisting in children’s church and regardless of the children’s attitude upon arrival, the moment we all began singing and playing musical instruments, everyone could visibly see the calming changes in a room of 40, 3- and 4-year-old children; they became more peaceful, complete. They were more amiable to sit through a lesson and their parents noticed that they were more apt to fall asleep on their way home. While this is not a controlled experiment, the children spent 10 minutes singing and dancing and the ripple effects lasted for 6 hours.
As I felt calmed in the bank with my humming and swaying, singing with movement calmed the children’s souls and gave them an emotional outlet for the experiences in their small worlds. I do not believe they consciously understood the benefits of the music and movement, they just truly enjoyed it. Music and dance may just be particularly pleasurable activators of the sensory and motor circuits. So,â€¦humans like watching others in motion (and being in motion themselves), adding music to the mix may be a pinnacle of reward.” (Why do we like to dance–And move to the beat?, 2008). Therefore, it is true that music can bring about deep emotional experiences and it can cause us to want to move with the beat as it uplifts our souls. Regardless if we listen to music casually or unfailingly, it can move our souls in ways unimaginable.
Juslin, P. N. (2013). What does music express? Basic emotions and beyond. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3764399/
Why do we like to dance–And move to the beat? (2008, September 26). Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/experts-dance/
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