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How We Experience Music

Understanding emotions in music.

Key points

  • Music is often regarded as a "language of emotions."
  • Music has the capacity to mimic emotions.
  • Music provides a safe space to experience negative emotions.
Pixabay License Free for commercial use No attribution required
Source: Pixabay License Free for commercial use No attribution required

One of the most important issues in the psychology of music is how music affects emotional experience (Juslin, 2019). Most music listeners use the emotional expression as the most important criterion for evaluating music. We often describe pieces of music as sad, joyful, tender, or harsh. What is the link between music and emotion? How does music affect our moods?

1. Learned association. One way music could express emotion is simply through a learned association. We hear certain kinds of music as sad because we have learned to associate them with sad events like funerals. The feeling is not the music, but what it reminds us of. The same music which stimulates some people to dance may move others to tears. It all depends on the thoughts which are produced in our memory.

2. Where words fail, music speaks. Music mirrors the dynamics of emotional life, such as tension and relief, conflict, and excitation followed by resolution and calm. The emotions we hear in music are often difficult to capture in words. Music expresses our subtle feelings better than language can. People who have difficulty expressing their feelings in words sometimes feel more comfortable expressing these emotions through music. Similarly, lyrics that resonate with the listener’s personal experience can give voice to feelings or experiences that one might not be able to express oneself. As the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius said, “Music begins where the possibilities of language end.”

3. Aesthetic emotion. Music is one of the most powerful means of evoking aesthetic emotions. We listen to music to take great pleasure in its beauty. Aesthetic emotions are typically sought and savored for their own sake. Aesthetic emotions include feeling moved, awe, wonder, transcendence, nostalgia, and tenderness. Aesthetic emotions do not require us to act; they just invite us to savor (Winner, 2019).

4. Biological response to music. Pleasurable music may lead to the release of neurotransmitters associated with reward, such as dopamine. The brain areas activated by music are the same as those involved in pleasure from food and sex. Music also activates areas of the brain involved in attachment-related emotions such as love, compassion, and empathy. This suggests that music can strengthen social bonds. We often engage with music with other people: We listen, sing, and dance together. Thus, being with others may strengthen the emotional response to music.

5. Music as catharsis. Music helps to channel one’s frustration or purge (catharsis) negative emotions (anger and sadness). When we listen to sad music or watch a sad film, we are disconnected from any real threat or danger that the music or movie represents. We like sadness in music because sadness intensifies the feeling of being moved—and being moved feels good.

6. Entrainment. Music makes us feel like moving. We move in synchrony to the beat, dancing or marching, or tapping our feet. Moving in these ways intensify emotions. Being in sync with music is a source of pleasure. It is no accident that dance-like music makes people happy because it is easy to entrain (attune) to its rhythmic pattern. Our internal rhythms (e.g., heart rate) speed up or slow down to become one with the music. We float and move with the music.

In sum, music provides us with a means to project our emotions outward; as well, we can see ourselves in music. Music is not a magic pill that can immediately resolve a negative mood. For instance, the depressive mood is often closely related to thought patterns. The benefits of listening to distracting music can be temporary. So, listening to music that alters mood via shifting thought patterns may have a long-lasting effect.


Juslin PN (2019), Musical Emotions Explained, New York, NY Oxford University Press.

Winner E (2019), How artworks: A psychological exploration, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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