Music Perception and Emotions

Table of Content

Music is a science of a syntactic system. Like words, musical ideas keep (some of) their identity and implication within different contexts as contributing to the whole resulting from their combination; melodies introduced in the elucidation remain recognizable as individuals while they return in the recapitulation, even if the altered method of their conjunction lends a new implication to the result.

The Science of Music Perception

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Music processing builds on basic principles of auditory pattern perception (Davies, 1994), they have not attempted to define the relative contributions of prehistoric and higher-order strategies to music listening. The music theorist Eugene Narmour (1990) is a distinguished exception in this regard, but he would be the first to allow that the task is daunting.

The meaning of music lies in the perception and considerate of the musical relationships set forth in the work of science and that meaning in music is principally intellectual, while the expressionist would argue that these same relationships are in some sense competent of exciting feelings and emotions in the listener.

This point is significant as the expressionist position has often been confused with that of the referentialist. For almost all referentialists are expressionists, believing that music communicates emotional meanings, not all expressionists are referentialists. Thus when formalists, such as Hanslick or Stravinsky, reacting against what they think to be an overemphasis upon referential meaning, have denied the prospect or relevance of any emotional response to music, they have adopted an unsustainable position partly as they have confused expressionism and referentialism.

One might, in other words, divide expressionists into two groups: absolute expressionists and referential expressionists. The former group “believes that expressive emotional meanings arise in response to music and that these exist without reference to the extra musical world of concepts, actions, and human emotional states, while the latter group would assert that emotional expression is dependent upon an understanding of the referential content of music”. [1]

According to psychologists the perception and cognition of music reveal mental structures. Their work has capitulates models to test music theory empirically, and at the same time, some music theorists have placed musical analysis within a broad spectrum of knowledge that draws from linguistics and information theory.

Broadly speaking, musicians and music psychologists have a similar goal: to know how music is alleged and understood. The interest of music theorists and musicians is in understanding better the musical structure and musical understanding of actual compositions; cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, have been more involved in researching mental theories of how specific musical events may be perceived. Their emphasis has been mainly to investigate the perception of separate musical parameters somewhat than the musical experience.

The Science of Emotional Response

To communicate explicit emotions to listeners, performers all together manipulate a range of musical parameters. The research findings on emotional expression in music may be organized according to a speculative framework that describes the communicative process in terms of E. Brunswik’s (1956) lens model.

“With regard to musical performances, experience has shown that the thoughts of the hearer is in general so much at the disposal of the [performer] that by help of variation, intervals, and modulation he can stamp what impression on the mind he pleases” Francesco Geminiani, cited in Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music.

Of all the sub skills that make up music performance, the ones linked with emotional communication are often viewed as the most subtle. They go right to the core of why people engage in musical behavior, either as performers or as listeners. The performance of a piece of music is vital in shaping its emotional expression. Thus the emotional impact of mainly expressive performers— for example, C. P. E. Bach, Niccolò Paganini, and Jimi Hendrix—has always been a source of great fascination. What is the origin of their expressiveness? How is it achieved?

It must be noted at the outset that there are diverse uses of the word expression in the literature. In studies of music performance, expression has been used to refer to the systematic distinctions in timing, dynamics, timbre, and pitch that form the microstructure of a performance and distinguish it from another performance of the same music (Palmer, 1997). The word expression has also been used to refer to the emotional qualities of music as perceived by listeners (Davies, 1994). These two senses of the word are of course linked in that performers use systematic variations in performance parameters to communicate emotions to listeners.

From antiquity to modern times, reveals a range of ideas about what music is capable to express: emotion, beauty, motion, expressive form, energy, tension, events, religious faith, personal individuality, and social conditions.

Questions about music and emotion have taken humans ever since antiquity. The ancient Greeks argued that specific musical features are linked with specific emotions. This notion received its most defined formulation in the doctrine of the affections throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (cf. Mattheson, 1739/1954). Since then, conceptions of musical emotions have changed, all through history, along with changing conceptions of emotions in general e.g., eighteenth-century affect as a modernized emotional state in contrast to nineteenth-century emotion as personal and impulsive expression [2].

Influential modern theories of music and emotion comprise Langer (1942), Meyer (1956), Cooke (1959), and Clynes (1977). Empirical research on emotional expression in music has been conducted for a century, including the revolutionary studies by Hevner (1936). This work explored the expressive properties of diverse musical features, such as pitch or mode (Gabrielsson & Juslin). Different aspects of a musical composition can influence emotional expression.

Few studies have investigated how performers conceptualize and disperse meaning to a piece of music as preparing it for performance. However, both empirical research (e.g., Persson, 1993; Woody, 2000) and biographical accounts (Menuhin, 1996; Schumacher, 1995) substantiate that performers often conceive of performance in terms of emotions and moods. Many performers consider expressivity to be one of the most vital aspects of performance (Persson, 1993).

Despite the strong emphasis on expressiveness amongst musicians, a number of studies suggest that expressive aspects of performance are abandoned in music education. Specifically, teachers lean to spend much more time and effort on practical aspects than on expressive or aesthetic aspects (Persson, 1993; Tait, 1992). As a result, students may come to focus on expressive aspects fairly late in their arty development (Woody, 2000). Critics often complain that young musicians attain a high technical skill without being able to induce an emotional experience in the listener. Consequently, music educators have been buoyant to devote more attention to emotion and expression in music. Such a change of emphasis must lead to an increased concern with the actual strategies used to teach expressive skills of music performance. Teaching strategies form the how of music teaching; they entail vocabulary usage, diverse forms of modeling, and management procedures[3].

Pitch, Rhythm and Timbre

            The neuronal basis of the respective operations can be compared to modules working partially as isolated neuronal processing units. Thus, pitch, rhythm and timbre structures, for instance, seem to be processed, at least in part, by separate modules, since they can be selectively weakened following brain lesions. Generally speaking, musical time structures are mainly processed in the left temporal lobe, whereas pitch structures are processed mainly through networks in the right temporal lobe.

The situation becomes more complicated while considering that the perception of music may take place at different hierarchical levels. With respect to melodic structures, interval-based listening through step-by-step analysis of a melody should be distinguished from contour-based listening in which the more common features of a melody are analyzed. The first type of listening is considered as a local mode of cognitive processing; the latter, as a global or holistic mode. By analogy, note-by-note rhythm processing can be considered as a local task, in contrast to meter processing, which is a more global task. From studies of brain abrasions and functional imaging studies we have learned that local processing relies, considerably, on structures in the brain’s left hemisphere. Global processing, on the contrary, is reliant upon those structures in the right hemisphere. Since music listeners can switch from one mode to another, it is evident that the neuronal networks implicated in music processing are adaptive, quickly changing, and not fixed in definite music centers. It must be emphasized that as soon as music is processed extensive neuronal networks are activated that replicate the individual’s way of listening and processing. These comprise not only the temporal but also the frontal, parietal, and occipital lobes of both hemispheres of the brain (Schuppert et al., 2000).

What make s music important?

The value of music lies in its prospective to contribute to the manner in which the individual finds meaning in life and in which the culture at large describes its place in history and the world. Music generally has this potential because it engages with basic human concerns and practices, even if its contribution is oblique and not geared to practical, particular concerns. Music possesses its import not exclusively by virtue of its expressive power, but its expressiveness is one of the more significant aspects of this engagement, given the central value to us of the affective dimension in life. Music in general could not serve as a source of knowledge; psychological therapy, human communication, and community were it not expressive, and at times striking in its expressiveness.

Kivy takes on the wider issue, that of the significance of music in human life, when he attempts to argue, not simply that music is important and important, but that it may be so profoundly (1990a).

To be profound, music should (i) be about (ii) a profound subject (iii) treated in an excellent way or in some way adequate to that subject matter. As his model for profound music, he takes the style of contrapuntal writing exemplified in J. S. Bach’s chorale prelude on “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sind”.

Because Kivy denies that instrumental music is about anything — and denies particularly that is about the emotions it expresses — he suggests that the first condition is met simply by recognizing that, by illuminating the possibilities of musical sound itself, music is about those very possibilities. The subsequent condition seems to be met because music is of abiding interest and significance to many people. The third condition is satisfied by great instrumental works. Yet, Kivy acknowledges the failure of his analysis.

Many things are of enduring interest without involving thoughtful subjects and, since “the possibilities of musical materials” is not a reflective subject matter touching the moral heart of human life, instrumental music fails the vital second condition.

Music presents emotion characteristics. Just as a willow can be sad-looking, or a person’s face happy-looking, music can present a communicative appearance in its sound (without regard to anyone’s felt emotions). This is as we experience the dynamic character of music as like the proceedings of a person; movement is heard in music, and that movement is heard as purposive and as reasonably organized. Within musical styles, these natural propensities for expressiveness are structured and advanced by musical conventions, so that the expressiveness of a work might be apparent simply to someone familiar with the conventions of the pertinent style.

Music might be experienced as expressive without its having been intended by its composer to present the expressive character it wears. Usually, though, the composer contrives and manages the expressiveness of the music. This is why music can suitably be understood as referring to, or being about, the world of human feelings.

Impact of Music Perception on Music Education

Music perception is basically a set of private experiences incommunicable and varying from listener to listener depending on individual perceptions and responses.

Music easily becomes mere background to other symbolic transactions. At times this may be fine, but we must neither carelessly assume that music education makes no difference, nor too credulously accept that it will. All depends on the quality of the transaction and the understanding that intuition and analysis are equally interactive. Analytical conversations about music perception are no stand-in for musical experience.

As Nicholas Cook says, distinguishing musicological from aesthetic listening:

“…listening to music for the purpose of setting up facts or formulating theories and listening to it for purposes of direct aesthetic fulfillment are two fundamentally different things”[4].

Indeed they are, but analysis lies at the heart of attempts to take on in education and feeds the ingenious workings of intuition with data, ‘yielding more and more understanding’ (Langer 1953:105), and informing intuitive knowledge though never replacing it. So teachers, students and music-lovers will essentially become aware of music from what Nicholas Cook pictures as the weaver’s side of the carpet: seeing something of the inner workings, the tied ends, the loose threads, the organization of the color scheme; analyzing, cross-sectioning. This ‘going behind the scenes’ is essential to give some kind of structure to any educational transaction, to systematize classrooms, to get students going; above all to sharpen the perception of detail and alert us to aspects of the music so far unseen.

Possible applications of the knowledge

Music education has a single key aim: opening up the windows of value. It is probable to promote this aim only by understanding rather of the nature of musical knowledge, at least instinctively. Musical value arises from the other knowledge strands, those of materials, significant character and structure. In valuing, knowledge of music is at its most subjective and characteristic, where fusion between intuition and analysis takes place, a strong sense of the momentous that makes music such an authoritative element in every culture. This sense of value, of obligation, coincides and emerges with other developments that so often distinguish the mid-teens: fervent religious belief, zealous political association, intense personal relationships and fervent hero-worship.

Music is particularly likely to be caught up in these value worlds; it is, after all, a powerful action of vital importance in all cultures. Educators are always on the look-out for the growth of valuing, even if it seems volatile, beyond the reach of day-to-day curriculum planning and classroom practice. This individual, personal value knowledge is intertwined with the spontaneous and analytical apprehension of materials, expressive character and form in musical performances. Unless we understand something of what is happening in the layers of musical knowledge there can be simply prejudice. But it is entirely probable to understand music and still not find value, to play a Bach Sarabande quite dramatically but find it quite boring, to hear In the South as ‘active’ and ‘varied’ but still not think it ‘good’.

The decisive educational ambition remains the same—that music comes progressively more to be seen by students as a significant symbolic form. This is the ultimate heart of musical knowing, opening up the prospect of important changes of disposition and attitude that can significantly affect our lives, like the day we fell in love with someone.

We ‘knew’ that it was love; we came to know ‘what’s what’ in the sense of what was helpful, at least for us. This is not the same as being told about the delights of love or reading a record sleeve concerning a piece of music by Mozart or Paul Simon but rather of experiencing it ourselves; that animated and structural elements relate to the way we feel and think and guide us on into new realms of understanding. This attitude cannot be taught—only learned, and it can be that formal structures of education can become an inapt context for such personal knowledge.

Fortunately, we are not reliant only on schools and colleges for the growth of musical knowing. Schooling is not the simply agent of education; and music is ‘out there’ in the world beyond the classroom or studio. On this matter of the relationship of music in education and music in society, three of the most significant music educators seem divided. Kodály wanted to initiate children into ‘high’ culture. Orff seems to form a separate culture of classroom music with special classroom instruments, a children’s community where we return to the ‘elemental’. But any suggestion of a separate musical world for classrooms would surely have been resisted by Dalcroze.

“Before everything else, always make certain that the teaching of music is worthwhile. And there must be no confusion as to what is understood by ‘music’. There are not two classes of music: one for adults, drawing rooms, and concert halls, the other for children and schools. There is only one music, and the teaching of it is not so hard a matter as educational authorities are apt to suggest at their congresses”[5].

Education ought not to be a closed system but a facilitative activity that draws attention to ideas and processes that subsist in the wider world beyond. The preparation of music teachers in college has to imitate this. In a longitudinal study, Edward Gifford alarmingly divulges that limited gains in music and teaching skills obtained during initial primary teacher training seem to be equalizing by a loss of sense of musical value and enjoyment. Institutional analysis seems to have produced a loss of instinctive response. He concludes:

It is not a new music curriculum that is being supported here but a music education which responds to both sides of the dialectic; one where instruction and encounter both have significant roles. Institutionalized education cannot escape the pressures that behavioral objectives place upon instruction and this can be advantageous in shifting the focus of teachers towards the behavior of students and the aspect of the activity. However, learning through a determined sequence of fixed objectives may limit the occurrence of probable encounters during which students will react in their own way and frame learning experiences for themselves[6].

Though curriculum structures are powerful notations which can condition teaching and learning transactions, they are not secluded elements of professional context in which educators work. All professional practice is based on theories of some kind, or as a minimum on hidden assumptions—undeclared theories. Curriculum thinking is also shaped by levels of offered technology—in music, the development of mechanisms for producing and transmitting sound. Together with wider theories of social meaning, technology drastically extends vocal and instrumental potential and therefore alters our perception of what counts as music and music education, playing a part in shaping what takes place in classrooms and studios.

Foot Notes

Emotion in Musical Meaning: A Peircean Solution to Langer’s Dualism
Cook, N., & Dibben, N. (2001). Musicological approaches to emotion. In P. N. Juslin & J. A. Sloboda (Eds. ), Music and emotion: Theory and research (pp. 45–70). New York: Oxford University Press.
Tait, M. (1992). Teaching strategies and styles. In R. Colwell (Ed. ), Handbook of research on music teaching and learning (pp. 525–534). New York: Schirmer.
Cook, N. (1990) Music, Imagination and Culture, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Jacques-Dalcroze, E. (1967) Rhythm, Music and Education, trans. H.F. Rubinstein, London: Riverside Press (first published in 1915).
Gifford, E. (1993) ‘The musical training of primary teachers’, British Journal of Music Education, 10 (1), 34-46.


Bach, Kent. 1970. “Part of What a Picture Is” British Journal of Aesthetics, 10, 119-137
Brunswik, E. (1956). Perception and the representative design of psychological experiments. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Clynes, M. (1977). Sentics: The touch of emotions. New York: Anchor/Doubleday.
Cook, N. (1990) Music, Imagination and Culture, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Cook, N., & Dibben, N. (2001). Musicological approaches to emotion. In P. N. Juslin & J. A. Sloboda (Eds. ), Music and emotion: Theory and research (pp. 45–70). New York: Oxford University Press.
Cooke, D. (1959). The language of music. London: Oxford University Press.
Davies, S. (1994). Musical meaning and expression. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Emotion in Musical Meaning: A Peircean Solution to Langer’s Dualism
Gifford, E. (1993) ‘The musical training of primary teachers’, British Journal of Music Education, 10 (1), 34-46.
Hevner, K. (1936). Experimental studies of the elements of expression in music. American Journal of Psychology, 48, 246–268.
Jacques-Dalcroze, E. (1967) Rhythm, Music and Education, trans. H.F. Rubinstein, London: Riverside Press (first published in 1915).
Kivy, Peter. 1990a. Music Alone: Philosophical Reflection on the Purely Musical Experience. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Langer, S. K. (1942). Philosophy in a new key. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Langer, S.K. (1953) Feeling and Form, London: Routledge.
Mattheson, J. (1739/1954). Der vollkommene Capellmeister. Bärenreiter: Basel.
Menuhin, Y. (1996). Unfinished journey. London: Methuen.
Meyer, L. B. (1956). Emotion and meaning in music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Narmour, Eugene, The Analysis and Cognition of Basic Melodic Structures. Chicago:. Chicago University Press, 1990.
Palmer, C. (1997). Music performance. Annual Review of Psychology, 48, 115– 138.
Persson, R. S. (1993). The subjectivity of musical performance: A music-psychological real world enquiry into the determinants and education of musical reality. Doctoral dissertation, Huddersfield University, UK.
Schumacher, M. (1995). Crossroads: The life and music of Eric Clapton. New York: Hyperion.
Schuppert, M., Münte, T. F., Wieringa, B. M., & Altenmüller, E. (2000). Receptive amusia: Evidence for cross-hemispheric neural networks underlying music processing strategies. Brain, 123, 546–559.
Tait, M. (1992). Teaching strategies and styles. In R. Colwell (Ed. ), Handbook of research on music teaching and learning (pp. 525–534). New York: Schirmer.
Woody, R. H. (2000). Learning expressivity in music performance: An exploratory study. Research Studies in Music Education, 14, 14–23.

[1] Emotion in Musical Meaning: A Peircean Solution to Langer’s Dualism
[2] Cook, N., & Dibben, N. (2001). pp. 45–70
[3] Tait, M. (1992). pp. 525–534

[4] Cook 1990:152)

[5] Jacques-Dalcroze 1967:93, first published in 1915

[6] Gifford 1993:45


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