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Music Evokes Over a Dozen Distinct (But Universal) Emotions

Across different cultures, music evokes at least 13 key emotions.

Music is a universal language that evokes at least 13 key emotions across different cultures, according to a new study (Cowen et al., 2020) by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. These findings were published on January 6 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Pixabay

In a statement of significance, the authors describe two questions that inspired their research into how music makes us feel: "Do our subjective experiences when listening to music show evidence of universality? And if so, what is the nature of these experiences?"

Dacher Keltner is the senior author of this study. Keltner is co-director of the Greater Good Science Center and a world-renowned professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. In a news release, he summed up the importance of this study: "We have rigorously documented the largest array of emotions that are universally felt through the language of music."

For this study, lead author Alan Cowen and colleagues recruited a total 2,849 participants in the United States (n = 1,591) and China (n = 1,258) using Amazon Mechanical Turk's crowdsourcing platform.

During the study, participants listened to hundreds of music snippets and described specific feelings (e.g., "dreamy" or "angry") and the level of "arousal" that a specific music sample made each person feel. Then, the researchers used large-scale statistical tools to unearth 13 distinct subjective experiences associated with different genres of sound in the U.S. and China.

"Imagine organizing a massively eclectic music library by emotion and capturing the combination of feelings associated with each track. That's essentially what our study has done," Cowen said.

Graphic by Alan Cowen
Scientists mapped music samples according to the 13 key emotions triggered in more than 2,500 people in the United States and China when they listened to the audio clips.
Source: Graphic by Alan Cowen

Alan Cowen is a UC Berkeley doctoral student in neuroscience and a pioneer in the burgeoning field of mapping emotion. As you can see in the static (not interactive) map of music emotions he created above, the subjective experience of music across cultures can be mapped based on at least 13 overarching feelings.

Cowen also translated the massive amounts of the data collected for this study into an interactive map. By moving your cursor to various signposts (e.g., capital A-to-M letters) on Cowen's map, you can listen to different snippets of music that people across different cultures tended to associate with the corresponding letter and emotion.

Thirteen Emotions Evoked by Music (Cowen et al., 2020)

  1. Amusement
  2. Annoyance
  3. Anxiety
  4. Beauty
  5. Defiance
  6. Dreaminess
  7. Eroticism
  8. Feeling Pumped Up
  9. Joy
  10. Relaxation
  11. Sadness
  12. Scariness
  13. Triumph

How Does Alan Cowen's "The Emotions Evoked by Music" Interactive Map Work?

When you first click on this link to view the live interactive map (represented in the still shot above), you'll see a prompt that reads:

"The Emotions Evoked by Music: Within this interactive map, music samples are plotted along the 13 dimensions of self-reported emotional experience evoked by music across cultures (US and China). Each letter corresponds to a music track. Float over to play. Double click to reveal source (if available). Click and drag to rearrange."

For example, if you hover your cursor above one of the "J's" in the "Joyful, Cheerful" part of the map, you can hear a snippet of "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" by George Harrison or "Don't Worry, Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin. This interactive map is fun to explore. Every letter corresponds to a different snippet of music that relates to a color-coded letter (e.g., "E-Calm, relaxing, serene" or "M-Triumphant, heroic").

As you spend time moving your cursor around the map and listening to song snippets, ask yourself what songs you'd expect to find under each category based on your musical likes and dislikes.

The Therapeutic Value of Making Eclectic Playlists That Reflect Over a Dozen Emotions

This morning, I read about the "What Music Makes Us Feel" study (2020) for the first time. After spending about a half hour navigating the interactive map and listening to countless snippets of music in every color-coded region of the map, I decided to make my own playlist based on the 13 key emotions.

After I curated a playlist of two songs that evoked each of the 13 key emotions (which took about five minutes), I went for a long run. It felt therapeutic and cathartic to experience a kaleidoscope of emotions triggered by each of the songs listed below during my morning jog.

As would be expected, a lot of these long-forgotten (or purposely avoided) songs triggered vivid flashbacks and opened a floodgate of emotions.

Of course, songs under the "sadness" and "anxiety" category were included on my playlist; the two "sad songs" never fail to make my eyes well up with tears. Also, I'm still trying to figure out why I despise the tonality and genre of sounds in some of my self-selected tracks in the "annoyance" and "scariness' category so much.

Here are 26 songs I included on my "13 Key Emotions" playlist:

When you go through the list of 13 key emotions evoked by music, can you think of two songs from each category you'd add to a personalized playlist?

I'd highly recommend compiling your own eclectic playlist based on Cowen's map. Based on my anecdotal experience, I can vouch for the therapeutic value of listening to music that evokes the wide-range of emotions associated with subjective experiences identified in this study.

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Alan S. Cowen, Xia Fang, Disa Sauter, Dacher Keltner. "What Music Makes Us Feel: At Least 13 Dimensions Organize Subjective Experiences Associated with Music Across Different Cultures." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (First published: January 6, 2020) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1910704117

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