Emotion and the Experience of Listening to Music: A Framework for Empirical Research

Matthew Levy
University of Cambridge, UK (April, 2001)


That music evokes emotion is a well-known and uncontested fact. Rather more contentious have been the numerous attempts by philosophers, writers and musicians over the centuries to explain the phenomenon. In recent years, the development of cognitive psychology has led to renewed interest in the field; a growing number of music psychologists are devoting their energies to the empirical examination of various aspects of musically evoked emotion. Despite the wealth of data fast amassing, however, there exist few theoretical accounts of emotional response to music written from a music-psychological perspective within which empirical studies can be understood and upon which they can build. Furthermore, accounts that do exist have traditionally made rigid distinctions between intrinsic and extrinsic sources of emotion, distinctions that do not fit well with our understanding of emotional antecedents in other domains.

This thesis presents the foundations of a model of emotional response to music that places the experience of listening to music squarely within the wider frame of human engagement with the environment. Instead of presenting a categorization of music or an analysis of cultural or individual semantic tokens, the model develops four basic assumptions concerning listeners and their relationship to music:

1. Music is heard as sound. The constant monitoring of auditory stimuli does not suddenly switch off when people listen to music; just like any other stimulus in the auditory environment, music exists to be monitored and analyzed.

2. Music is heard as human utterance. Humans have a remarkable ability to communicate and detect emotion in the contours and timbres of vocal utterances; this ability is not suddenly lost during a musical listening experience.

3. Music is heard in context. Listeners do not exist in a vacuum: music is always heard within the context of a complex web of knowledge, thoughts and environment, all of which can potentially contribute to an emotional experience.

4. Music is heard as narrative. Listening to music involves the integration of sounds, utterances and context into dynamic, coherent experience. Such integration, far from being a phenomenon specic to music listening, is underpinned by generic narrative processes.

The first part of the thesis introduces the four components of the model, reviews existing empirical and theoretical research that supports its premises, and considers its ramifications. The discussion reveals that despite an abundance of evidence pointing to the importance of narrative for affective responses to music, virtually no empirical work has addressed the issue directly. Hence, the second part of the thesis presents three experiments that constitute a preliminary attempt to do so. First is an experiment that investigates the interaction between music and listening context in the evocation of emotional response. It presents participants with musical excerpts in conjunction with explicit extra-musical narratives in order to demonstrate how readily music binds with extra-musical context to form a dynamic, coherent whole. The second and third experiments seek to demonstrate that such binding is not specic to music but is an example of the workings of more generic cognitive processes that underpin narrative comprehension. In addition, both of these experiments are intended to exemplify research paradigms that could be used in future empirical research on the narrative processing of music and its role in the evocation of emotion.

The thesis argues that the Sound-Utterance-Context-Narrative model constitutes a good framework for empirical work because it is specific enough to provoke detailed research questions and methodologies, but generic enough that a theoretically complete answer to all the questions it poses would constitute a comprehensive understanding of emotional response to music. Its over-arching claim is that an understanding of emotional response to music can only be attained by the development of models that refrain from treating music as a privileged class of object with intrinsic emotional properties, and instead consider the act of listening to music as a perfectly ordinary human activity.

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