A child in his first months will respond to music as a big person, who will stand by and dance if he hears some upbeat songs, and when listening to sad tunes, he will embrace his mother’s shoulders and calm down a little. So more, When we hear Four seasons of Vivaldi we are able, only through his music, to imagine and feel each season in each part. What is happening here? What does music bring to our attention? And why do we cry when we hear Titanic music?

The secret of music

In fact, music is not literally a language, that is, it does not carry any semantics, and despite that, we respond to it as a communication tool. And music isn’t just a sound; we hear a lot of sounds such as hitting and friction throughout the day and do not catch us with the same effect. Perhaps, for this reason, the most famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche alluded in his book The Birth of Tragedy that music is a transcendental precondition for language, and even set it as a rudimentary image of our very existence.

On the other hand, the history of philosophy is replete with many reflections on music. Beginning with Pythagoras and his initiations with mathematics are said to have been through the contemplation and regularity of music. To Plato Music is a moral law, passing through Kant who considered that the beauty of music is related to the beauty of its composition itself. Until we reach Schopenhauer who believed that music “is more penetrative for ourselves than all other arts, because all of these arts address shadows only, while music addresses the essence”.

Let’s turn a little from philosophy to science, where the beginnings of the research behind the relationship between music and emotional arousal – in all its forms – are traced back to the composer, philosopher, and one of the authors of the aesthetics in music, Leonard B. Meyer. Meyer during his published book In the 1950s, “Emotion and meaning in music”, which used techniques from gestalt psychology, information theory, and prior familiarity with specific types of music, to explain this connexion.

Nevertheless, it did not happen – until the 1980s – that musical theories interacted with experimental psychology, perhaps because most of the researchers in this field were mainly musical authors, but recently experimental sciences, psychological and neurological, began to enter more firmly on the ground of this research field, especially with the development of Neuroimaging (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)) techniques that enable us to directly track the impact of music on the listener’s brain while listening to music.

We will now be interested in a relatively recent study that attempts to find a solution to the main problem facing the relationship between music and human emotions, which is that we do not know where does the problem lie? Brain, but there is evidence that music, does not leave this trace, meaning that a song may be sad for you only, or that folk song may not be acceptable to you while it is acceptable to others.

On the other hand, we do not see that music only takes on a social aspect, but we also find that there are some global influences associated with the pattern of tones and their frequency on the human brain. Here Patrick N. Juslin Professor in Psychology from the Swedish University Uppsala, and Danial Västvjäl form Gothenburg university enters the field, to confirm that the matter of music is more complicated than explained by one, or even two (brain and social) mechanisms, but there are six mechanisms, called the Multiple Mechanisms Theory.


credits : Pexels, beauty-blur-casual-close-up
credits: Pexels, beauty-blur-casual-close-up

Multiple Mechanisms Theory

Mechanisms begin with the response from a brain part called the Brain Stem Reflex. In fact, the response of that part, and the rest of the brain remain biologically under active scientific research, but there are some essential hints that can benefit us here, for example, We find that the higher sounds than a specific frequency (loud and disturbed sounds) or less than it, warrants a direct response to the central nervous system in the human body or even the rest of the animals, and here we mean a feeling of danger or fear or only resentment. The brain conceives an acceptable impact caused by the audio frequency band located within between high and low rates.

In addition, what we know about the brain stem explains why music is affected, as it is also the region that integrates functionally with the cardiovascular system as well as with respiratory control functions, the sensory areas responsible for attention, and awareness in general. Any damage in that area threatens our lives. Thus, it may seem acceptable that experiments on fetuses say that there is a direct proportion between the acceleration of the heart rate and music intensity.

On the other hand, Evaluative Conditioning enters as a second mechanism to clarify the cause of the emotional reaction to music. The mechanism says that hearing the same music repeatedly with an event causes a positive or a negative feeling, depending on the event. For example, your meeting with your friends, or the ending scene of your favourite horror movie, or feeling proud when listening to the national hymn, etc.,

alireza-attari -unsplash
Alireza-Attari -Unsplash

In the sense that raising your attention to grief towards a specific piece of music interact with an unknown event. However, once they know about this condition, those who are subject to experiments can’t feel the same situation towards their sad or happy music. It means that the process is unconscious, unintended, and effortless. That’s because it is correlated with the stimulation of subcortical brain areas, including the amygdala and the cerebellum. Therefore, it is important to note that such conditional cases remain affected for long periods.

Evaluative Conditioning differs from another mechanism associated with our episodic memory, in which it Indicates the recall of a song for happy or sad memory. But, what is interesting here is the extent to which music is able to evoke those memories with all the feelings related to them. Even more, some experiences claim that individuals who are nostalgic to their childhood music tend to have a musical career.

But of course, we find that many respond happily or sadly to a piece of music, without any conditional cases. Here we must make it clear that these six mechanisms that the new theory assumes are not related to each other, but each of them operates its own itinerary. However, We have to consider that all the mechanisms are complementary to each other, but so far, we have not talked about the effect of similar music itself on many individuals, how does that happen?

Photo by FOTOGRAFIA .GES on Unsplash
Photo by FOTOGRAFIA.GES on Unsplash

Here another mechanism can explain that aspect, and we call it Emotional Contagion. The mechanism means that emotion is excited in a small way based on the slow-paced voice, or the low level of it. After that, the listener stimulates this effect, internally or externally through emotional contagion, that is, we – as humans – when we see some kind of influence on the faces of others towards sad music, we tend to go beyond the evaluation of the music presented before us to believe It is unfortunate based on what others have shown.

In fact, the issue of emotional infection exceeds the limits of behavioural influences. Juslin and Västvjäl, on their previous experiences, have proven that humans capture the same facial expressions from others in photographs, real or Photoshoped. And this is also one of the explanations describing the link between the infant and its mother simulating the same expressions and feeling the same pace. Moreover, and by the standards of evolutionary psychology, this phenomenon is essential to keep communication between the members of the group at its best, the group is stronger and safer than the individual.

The previous content is also linked to another behavioural mechanism related to the evocation of Visual Imagery from the brain. These mental images are considered as an essential engine for many physiological responses, and with reference to previous and current experiences, our researchers see that the reason is the attempt of humans to translate concepts Musical to metaphoric images in the brain. Therefore, it may explain why people respond to sad or dance music, for example, when a person listens to speedy tones, he turns them into a brain scene in which degrees rise.

Music as a language

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Finally, we come to the sixth mechanism related to your musical expectations, Musical Expectancy. When (for example) you listen to a piece of music, and then suddenly you feel that there is a wrong note, although you do not have any clue about music, that means human beings have expectations about patterns, let me for example, through a piano or guitar, to play for you the tones “Do”, then “RI”, then “Mi”, then “Fa”, here if the next note is not “Sol” you will feel the anomaly in the harmony.

At this point, your expectations for music are similar to your expectations for language, which consist of specifically predicted syllables. And for this reason, your sense of music rises with the high level of your training. It is similar to your ability to discover a grammatical error in a news article, wherewith continuous training and reading. Your delicate linguistic sense will easily detect anomalies. So, it is natural to expect that disturbances in the parts of the brain responsible for language to be associated with humans ’natural ability to anticipate the pattern of music. So then after all, as Nietzsche said, perhaps, it is an image Primitive of language.

At first glance, it appears that the research behind the relationship between music and human emotions is a kind of scientific luxury, but after the Meyer book that we talked about above, it has become one of the vital research areas in many universities, whether in the departments of psychology or cognitive neuroscience. Furthermore, this scope has also been able to link itself to other different branches, such as music therapy (still a new branch), marketing research to create advertisements suitable for the public, film music research, music history, Aesthetics, philosophical psychology, or innovation in musical instruments.

So it happens that when we listen to the music of the Titanic movie that we have shown above, we may recall our memories with the movie, the incident itself, cold water, the children’s crying in the rooms, and the travel bags. Then, we may link this to any other ferry sinking that now sleeps at the bottom of the Sea for nothing but because one of them did not care about some safety standards. We might remember the scene of children’s bicycles in it, gifts that did not arrive, and the hugs that were not filled after the longing for waiting, that might prompt us to amplify our feelings towards that piece. It’s about An extended low frequency designed with high precision by a great artist, on the lower side of the boundaries, which affects our brain positively. Music, then, is a complete and cross-cutting experience in ourselves.


When I started to learn Piano, several years ago, I still remember the first session related to the definition of music and its theories, the first thing the professor told us was that music is “a voice with time, and silence with time”, Music is not only the sweet sound of the instrument but the dialectic of sound with silence. Perhaps, the opposites are what makes this universe dance a lot. Therefore we can remember what Victor Hugo once said: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”


Source: From everyday emotions to aesthetic emotions: Towards a unified theory of musical emotions


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