Genevieve Douglass, MAPP '10, is a positive psychology coach living in New York City. She considers her work to be helping individuals find their authentic selves. Read more on her web site. Full bio.
My background is originally in music, but for the last 5 years or so, I have been focused on psychology. Lately, I’ve been getting music work from old friends who’ve asked me to write demos, soundtracks, and songs. Revisiting musical work with my newly acquired positive psychology mindset has made me wonder again about why we humans love music so much.
Music and SadnessThe P in Seligman’s theory of PERMA stands for positive emotion. It’s something that we are motivated to experience in and of itself.
However, one particular question came up for me as I perused my music collection. Much of what I enjoyed and appreciated listening to was actually in a minor key, often in a key intended to induce sadness.
Why would I gravitate toward experiencing a negative emotion such as sadness? On top of this, much of the music that I write is in a minor key and generally explores the depth of an emotion. Getting back into writing music has reminded me how differently I feel after a day filled with such emotional work. For lack of a more scientific term, I call it feeling grounded.
Exploring the Connection Between Music and Emotion
In a 2009 experiment performed at McGill University, researchers asked the question: what exactly is rewarding about listening to music? Participants brought in music that they found consistently pleasurable, defined by giving them chills each time they listened to it. They also listened to excerpts from other participants’ music (as a neutral control). The music ranged in genre from Beethoven to Pink Floyd. The research team captured a battery of physiological measures in real-time as well as the participant’s subjective rating of how pleasurable they found the music. Participants also rated what they thought the excerpts of music were intended to elicit.Intensity Trumps Valence
The researchers found that the valence of the music (whether listeners perceived the music as happy or sad) had no bearing on how pleasurable the listeners found the music. What seemed to matter was whether the participant experienced emotional arousal of some sort.
The experimenters clarified that not all highly aroused emotional states are pleasurable. Musical excerpts arousing unpleasant feelings, such as anxiety or fear, were omitted. Unfortunately, the authors did not include much detail on the emotions that the music did appear to elicit aside from sadness.
One theory is that music and art cause “shadow emotions”, a term often used for experiences that are separate from true emotions and occur in places perceived to be safe. It may be that this type of pleasure experience combined with emotional arousal is specific to music or art. But I think it points out that we still have a long way to go to understand the complexity of human emotion.Still Wondering
Ultimately, the article’s primary conclusion was that there is clearly a relationship between pleasure and emotional arousal. This leaves me with several questions:
- Could there be something beneficial in experiencing these sweet and sour interventions?
- Is there something useful in feeling strong emotions in general?
- Are people getting enough opportunity to experience emotional arousal during their days?
Salimpoor, V. N., Benevoy, M., Longo, G., Cooperstock, J. R. & Zatorre, R. J. (2009). The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal. PLoS ONE 4(10): e7487. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007487.