Music evokes strong emotional reactions. But it turns out that it’s not just sound, or even words, that control the emotions we feel.
Music researchers Professor Emery Schubert of UNSW Arts & Social Sciences and Dr Marco Susino of Flinders University have found that we appeal to stereotypes and past experiences when we react emotionally to music.
“Musical emotions in the absence of music: a cross-cultural investigation of the communication of emotions in music through extra-musical cues”, published in PLOS ONE, found that people’s emotional reactions and feelings towards music depend on the music genre label, not necessarily on the content of the music itself. Their study is one of the first to systematically demonstrate people’s emotional responses to music without playing music.
“Some people seem to have already tuned in to their emotional responses without even hearing the music, relying on biases or stereotypes around particular genres of music,” says lead researcher Dr. Susino.
In their study, the researchers used original lyrical excerpts but labeled them according to very different genres. Genre labels may have affected the emotional responses that music can communicate, independent of the sentiment of the lyrics.
“Thanks to this research, we can now predict that someone is going to have emotional reactions to music, not only because of musical characteristics, but also because of the cultural stereotype they may have about music,” says Professor Schubert.
For example, without the need for music to be played, a lyric labeled “heavy metal” produced a completely different emotional response than when the same lyric was described to listeners as “Japanese gagaku”.
“The Japanese music used in the study was associated with much softer emotions, although the message was not soft,” says Professor Schubert. “In a previous study, the same with stereotypes regarding hip hop music or heavy metal music was noted, these genres being associated with anger, fear and disgust. They were perceived as having negative values by compared to the same lyrics when labeled as ‘pop music.'” Some people seem to have already tuned their emotional responses without even hearing the music, relying on biases or stereotypes around particular genres of music.”
Dr. Susino says they explain these results as emotional stereotypes induced by extra-musical cues.
“This means that our emotional responses are partly based on preconceived ideas of how we hope the music will make us feel, regardless of what the music actually expresses.
“It shows that what music makes us feel may not be about the music itself, but about what we think it should communicate.”
Dr. Susino says the research findings show how complex it is to understand music’s ability to communicate emotion as well as elicit an emotional response.
“Until now, we thought that the music itself triggered musical emotions,” he says. “These results suggest otherwise.”
Professor Schubert says the study results show just how important music could be in breaking down cultural stereotypes.
“The way you challenge a stereotype is to immerse yourself in that culture,” he says.
“If we want to become better as individuals and collectively, we need to challenge some of the assumptions we make. In this regard, I think music could be used to help break down some of the barriers that exist between different cultures. and stereotypes.
Music evokes powerful positive emotions through personal memories
Marco Sushino et al. Musical emotions in the absence of music: a cross-cultural investigation of the communication of emotions in music through extra-musical cues, PLOS ONE (2020). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0241196
Provided by the University of New South Wales
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