The Science and Psychology Behind Music and Emotion

Author:  Gavin Ryan Shafron
Institution:  University of California, Los Angeles
Date:  November 2010


Music has been used for thousands of years as a means of emotional expression. The goals of this paper are to (a) review current literature on how music induces emotion (b) explore the mechanisms of how this happens both physiologically and psychologically and (c) to look at the role of desired effect and musical preference to move towards a general conclusion of what drives listeners' musical choices. This paper approaches this by looking at structural theories of music including those of Krumhansl (1997) that music has inherent qualities that instill specific responses in the listener. The paper then continues by addressing a Jungian perspective often employed in music therapy. Here, music is used to express what is otherwise inexpressible. The Behavioral Perspective section postulates that music can prime listeners by making them predisposed through associations to feel positive or negative emotions. This theory is carried over to an analysis of music and consumerism where emotional priming can serve as a bridge to an association with a product. The Physiological Effects section explores research on music's somatic connection indicating that pleasant music reduces stress and may decrease the body's post-stress responses. The Music and Performance section analyzes the Mozart effect and its potential relationship to the arousal and mood hypothesis, stating that the improved spatial IQ scores recorded in the Mozart effect may have more to do with the arousal generated by all classical music rather than Mozart's music itself. The paper concludes with an analysis of what drives listeners and the Arnett (1991a; 1991b; 1992) heavy metal studies, which show that music is the way adolescents deal with emotional upheaval and how music can be used as a means of achieving catharsis.