Music and poetry share a capacity to make their audience feel things. How do they do it? Do the same cognitive mechanisms play a role in both art forms?

Omigie (2015) hypothesizes that empathy with an imagined human artist plays an important role. Listeners might feel sympathetically elated for the joyful events that led to writing a particular poem or song, or sympathetically saddened for the tragic ones.

To test this hypothesis, new research (Margulis, Levine, Simchy-Gross & Kroger, 2017) gave listeners information about the artist’s expressive intent before they heard excerpts of instrumental music or poetry.

Previous studies had determined that the musical and poetic excerpts themselves were expressively ambiguous—they didn’t sound clearly positive or negative. The intent descriptions, however, were carefully planned to sound highly positive (e.g., “the composer/author wrote this music/poem in a time of great personal happiness”), highly negative (e.g., “the composer/author wrote this music/poem to mourn the death of a friend”) or neutral (e.g. “the composer/author wrote this music/poem for a public event”). The descriptions assigned to poems for one group of participants were assigned to pieces of music for another group, and the assignment of individual descriptions to individual excerpts varied among groups of participants as well, ensuring that the effect of the descriptions could be separated from the effect of the excerpts themselves.

People’s perception of the artist’s intent colored the way they heard the music or the poem. If the description was positive, they thought the excerpt was happier, but if it was negative, they thought the same excerpt was sadder. Their capacity to imagine the expressive goals of the composer or author helped them engage emotionally with the music or the poetry.

But an intriguing difference arose between the art forms. People liked and were more moved by the music when they thought it had been written for some happy purpose, but they liked and were moved by the poetry when told it had been written with a darker intent. Overall, they preferred music when they heard it as happy, but they preferred poetry when they heard it as sad.

This research suggests that imagining the emotional circumstances of the composer or author can be an effective way of engaging expressively with a piece of art. It also suggests that the kind of empathy that seems most powerful varies according to the type of art form.

Why did people sustain richer experiences when hearing music as happy but poetry as sad? Contribute your ideas in the comments.


Margulis, E.H., Levine, W.H., Simchy-Gross, R., & Kroger, C. (2017). Expressive intent, ambiguity, and aesthetic experiences of music and poetry. PLOS ONE, 12(7): e0179145. 

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