brain music

Music! Understanding our emotional responses to songs, lyrics, and chords.

Music is the shorthand of emotion. –Leo Tolstoy

Music has the ability to evoke powerful emotional responses—both chills and thrills—in listeners. And this capacity is universal. Why are we moved by music? How does music evoke emotion and pleasure? The followings describe key features of music that explain our emotional responses to music (Thompson, 2015).

1. Reminiscing. Listening to a music that was played a lot during a significant life event (e.g., a family celebration) many years ago can trigger a deeply nostalgic emotional experience. The feeling is not the music, but in what it reminds us. The power of music to evoke reminiscing is shown in the movie Casablanca, where Rick forbids his bar pianist Sam ever to play “As Time Goes By” because of the unbearable feelings of sadness and loss reminded by the song.

2. Synchronizing movements to music. As human beings, we have the capacity and inclination to synchronize our body movement to external rhythmic stimuli such as music (Ball, 2010). Rhythm can have a powerful effect on movement because the auditory system has a rich connection to motor systems in the brain. These connections help explain why music often makes us want to dance, and why we feel a natural inclination to tap along with music. Sounds that are loud, sudden and fast-paced generate increases in arousal. In contrast, relaxing music can reduce feelings of anxiety.

3. Music as a language of emotion. Music is a kind of language of emotion, with its components and patterns representing different feelings. People who have difficulty expressing their feelings in words sometimes feel more comfortable expressing these emotions through music. Music has the capacity to mimic emotions. The temporal patterns of music mirror our emotional lives, such as the introduction, buildup, climax, and closure. For example, a slow tempo naturally conveys sadness, because it has a structural resemblance with the slowness that we might expect in a sad individual.

4. Emotional contagion. Emotional contagion refers to the phenomenon that perceiving an emotion can sometimes induce the same emotion. As an example, people display automatic frowning when observing facial expressions of fear and sadness. A full music experience involves watching as well as listening. Visual aspects of performance greatly influence experiences of music. The use of facial expression in music is critically important for communicating emotional meanings of music. Hearing a sad cello performance may induce a genuine state of sadness in a listener (Juslin, 2013).

5. Music as an auditory cheesecake. The cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker (1997) has characterized music as “auditory cheesecake.” In this view, music is a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once. Of course, music is not a pill that, when swallowed, inevitably produces a given state of mind. However, like other rewards (e.g., food, sex, and money), pleasurable music activates pleasure and reward system (Vuust and Kringelbach, 2010). When something catches our ear, we like it to be repeated endlessly in the song because we cannot get enough of it.

6. Musical anticipation. What makes music so emotionally powerful is the creation of expectation.  Research shows that anticipation is a key element in activating the reward system and provoking musical pleasure. Unexpected changes in musical features intensity and tempo is one of the primary means by which music provokes a strong emotional response in listeners (Salimpoor et al, 2015). With enough exposure, the difference between expected and actual events decreases such that listeners begin to anticipate these events. And music becomes less pleasing.

7. The emotion of awe. Music often makes us feel like crying because we experience a sense of awe and admiration. The feeling is a kind of wonder at realizing what other minds are capable of creating. Awe is described as sensitivity to greatness, accompanied by a sense of being overwhelmed by the object of greatness (Emmons, 2009). In response to these emotions, we may experience goosebumps, and motivation for the improvement of self and society.


Ball, P (2010). The Music Instinct: How Music Works And Why We Can’t Do Without It? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Emmons, R.A. (2009). Gratitude. In D. Sander & K. R. Scherer, Eds., Oxford Companion to the Affective Sciences (p. 198). New York: Oxford University Press.

Juslin P. N. (2013). From everyday emotions to aesthetic emotions: towards a unified theory of musical emotions. Phys. Life Rev. 10, 235–266.

Thompson, William Forde (2015). Music, Thought, and Feeling: Understanding the Psychology of Music, 2nd ed. New york: Oxford University Press.

Pinker, S. (1997).  How the mind works. New York: W.W. Norton.

Salimpoor, V. N., Zald, D. H., Zatorre, R. J., Dagher, A., and McIntosh, A. R. (2015). Predictions and the brain: how musical sounds become rewarding. Trends Cogn. Sci. 19, 86–91.

Vuust P, Kringelbach ML. The pleasure of music. In: Kringelbach, Berridge, editors. Pleasures of the brain. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press; 2010. pp. 255–269.