Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Violating Expectations and Resolving Tensions: The Music of Emotions

How does music work to make us feel? Neuroscience helps explain.

An article recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal that analyzed and described what features of music, aside from personal memories and individual preferences, produce strong feelings. In short, it summarized research describing four musical features that contribute to the emotional experience of listening to music:

  1. There are unexpected deviations from the melody, such as through ornamental notes like an appoggiatura (an appoggiatura suspends the resolution of the melodic line for just a moment, long enough to create a sense of dissonance before it resolves).
  2. The music is soft, then abruptly becomes loud.
  3. There is an abrupt entrance of a new timbre or voice, such as a different harmony or a new instrument.
  4. The pitches being played expand, as when you move to an octave.

One common aspect in these features is that they all involve a sense of surprise, either through changes in the melody, harmony, loudness, or timbre . This surprise produces a moment of tension before the music resolves. It is this tension-release aspect that produces an emotional response.

In addition, music with these kind of features--music that produces a strong emotional response--has been found to release dopamine, our brain's "feel good" chemical. So not only are we initially attracted to this kind of music, but it keeps us coming back for more.

As a musician, and specifically as a music therapist, this type of analysis is interesting. We are trained to be able to manipulate certain musical elements--melody, harmony, timbre, meter, rhythm--to get a desired response. I have a colleague and friend who works in an inpatient neurorehabilitation unit. When she work on gait training with her patients, she differentiates between those who have a "marching" type of gait and those who have a "strolling" kind of gait. It's a subtle difference, but using the right type of song (e.g. "I've Been Working on the Railroad" for marchers and "Back In The Saddle Again" for strollers) can make a big difference in their success.

Back to emotions, though...we have long known, and neuroscience is beginning to back us up, that it's the tension-and-release part of music that elicits an emotional response. Dissonance-to-consonance. Dominant-to-tonic. Suspension-to-resolution. Additionally, music that violates the expectation that it will resolve creates a sense of surprise. We hear this when a dominant chord resolves to a minor 6th instead of the tonic or when listening to to "surprise" dynamic and voicing changes in Haydn's "Suprise" symphony. This element of surprise is a mechanism composers and musicians use to make music "more emotional."

As much as we can study and try to understand what elements of music are responsible for certain responses (like an emotional one), a large part of the power of music still lies with what it means for us personally. It's tied to our individual preferences and our associations with a person, place, or an event. It's music's ability to make us feel--to release that dopamine--that keeps us coming back for more.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.

More from Kimberly Sena Moore Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today