Is it possible to sum up all the feelings that music can evoke? A study surveyed people in China and America to determine that music evokes 13 different, recognizable emotions; but differences in cultures determine whether the emotion is perceived as positive or negative.
Conducted by the University of California at Berkeley, scientists recruited over 2,500 people and played 2,168 songs across many genres from classical to heavy metal. Their emotional reactions were classified into 13 distinct feelings: joyful/cheerful, amusing, calm/relaxing, energizing/pumped-up, triumphant/heroic, exciting, transcendent/mystical, dreamy, bittersweet, proud/strong, annoying, indignant/defiant, and awe-inspiring/amazing.
Surprisingly, the 13 condensed emotions were shared by all the listeners, despite the wide cultural differences between the American and Chinese cultures. For accuracy, study participants also listened to other samples of traditional Chinese music. It was determined that the emotions did fit within the 13 categories, even when aligned with different types of music to which listeners’ ears are not accustomed (in this example, the Americans).
Despite trying to control and cross-test music samples, the context behind previous times when the listener may have encountered the music sample in question could also cause a bias. However, this is less likely to have occurred because of the traditional Chinese music samples which were included in the data because Americans have less potential to have previously heard the music and formed an opinion.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this study is that some music, when heard by two different cultures, can register the same feeling, but can be perceived positively or negatively. The famous song from the movie “Jaws” elicited the feeling of fear from both American and Chinese listeners, but they did not agree if the feeling of fear was good or bad.
This discrepancy is related to the level of arousal that the music caused, which varies between individuals. The level of excitability that music creates can influence whether the listener feels stimulated or calm; and this, too, can differ culturally. It seems that people can agree on what emotion they are feeling, but their cultural perceptions of emotion make it harder for a global interpretation of positive and negative emotions.
Songs which were classified as energizing included the “Four Seasons” by classical composer Vivaldi; fearful music included the music from the shower scene in “Psycho”; and classical rock group The Clash excited their listeners and made them feel pumped up when they listened to “Rock the Casbah.”
Next time you find yourself listening to music, see if you can classify your emotional responses into one of the 13 categories, and decide if you agree with the scientists who believe it is possible to sum up all the emotions which music can evoke!
- Cowen, Alan S., et al. “What Music Makes Us Feel: At Least 13 Dimensions Organize Subjective Experiences Associated with Music across Different Cultures.” PNAS , vol. 117, no. 4, 6 Jan. 2020, pp. 1924–1934., doi:https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1910704117.