Comments on a Workshop-Symposium in Methods for Music and Emotion

Written by Dr. George Athanasopoulos, Dr. Imre Lahdelma & Thomas Magnus Lennie

The Workshop-Symposium on Methods in Music and Emotion took place on the 14th of September 2019 at St. Chad’s College, Durham University, United Kingdom. It was a fascinating day for those involved in the field, and a truly wonderful opportunity to get into the specifics of research methods, exploring new methodologies and re-imagining existing ones. There was quite a turn out for such a niche event with delegates visiting from The Americas and multiple locations across Europe. All in all, there were nine speakers and two keynotes, originating from 10 institutions.

Session 1

The day began with an inspiring talk from the Music and Science Lab’s own Dr George Athanasopoulos (Durham University) on his fascinating fieldwork in Pakistan (you can read more about this here). George’s presentation focused on his on-going COFUND/Marie Curie project which is investigating the emotional impact of specific cues of music (harmonic context, pitch height, tempo and loudness) on self-reported affective and physiological responses. Matching the spirit of the Symposium’s topic, George placed particular emphasis on the methodological aspects of his project, addressing issues of ecological validity, cultural accommodation, practical and logistical calculations on the selection of stimuli for cross-cultural research, and cultural bias. He demonstrated a cross-cultural fieldwork analogue methodology which captures music-evoked emotions via dimensional assessment through images, and gradient facial expressions of “basic” emotions from the Montreal Set of Facial Displays of Emotion database. Apart from the methodological aspect of the presentation, the Q&A session brought to the front the practical difficulties of conducting cross-cultural fieldwork research in music psychology, such as careful preparation and selection of both auditory and visual stimuli, and the over-arching effect of western music and culture which in effect makes the task of locating research participants with minimal exposure a very hard task indeed.


Juan Sebastián Gómez

The second presentation came from Juan Sebastián Gómez Cañón (Universitat Pompeu Fabra), whose talk was on the relation between emotions perceived in pop and rock music, and how the lyrics of said songs and the language spoken by the listener affects this perception. Juan and his colleagues hypothesised that there would be a higher agreement in perceived emotions by subjects speaking the same language as the stimuli, though this relationship was also affected by the genre of the music samples deployed. The team rated the different fragments according to the GEMS scale, and created online surveys in four languages so as to collect data from speakers of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The results were very promising, highlighting the relationship primarily between musical style and emotion perception, as well as providing an explanation as to why there was a rather small agreement between lyrics comprehension and the perceived emotional content of the varying musical styles. Juan’s research certainly opens up a large amount of future possibilities, however the Q&A session mostly focused on how the scope of the research could be narrowed down. The research team’s long-term goal is to better understand agreement in subjective emotion ratings, and analyse its implications on the development of personalised, language-sensitive emotion models.

The third presentation of the first session was from Dr. Renee Timmers (The University of Sheffield) on the topic of Bayesian interpretations of music and emotion in cultural expressions. In her talk, Renee suggested that, while music properties may be the ones to increase the perception of specific emotions over others (such as a musical excerpt fast in tempo and medium dynamics would be expected to be understood to portray x emotion in a specified audience), this perception also depends on contextual factors such as the a priori probability of emotions, listeners’ sensitivities and biases, and the distinctiveness of the properties within the musical context. Renee presented how the probability of an event, based on prior knowledge of conditions that might be related to the event may give shape to how music-evoked emotions are perceived, taking into account shaping factors which contextualise the music content. As an example she used data from Krumhansl’s analysis of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier dataset. Renee’s talk paved the way for a thought-provoking Q & A session, in which she clearly demonstrated the evident benefits for using this approach in the analysis of emotions in diverse music-cultural contexts, provided that cultural variation in expressions and factors of importance on selected parameters are accounted for. It will be most certainly interesting to see whether the Bayesian prediction model of music evoked emotions will indeed deem it a useful and practical application for musics of the world, naturally taking into consideration all extra-musical parameters.

Keynote: Dr. Damjanovic

Dr. Damjanovic

After the end of a thought-provoking first session which very much set the tone for the Symposium, it was the turn for the first invited speaker, Dr. Libby Damjanovic (Liverpool John Moores University), who delivered a keynote-workshop in which she focused on two cognitive aspects relevant to emotion: attention and memory and their relevant methodologies. Dr. Damjanovic’s talk began by showing a brief overview of her academic engagement with the Being Human Festival, in which she provided the science background for a Sign Choir using sign-language and facial expressions to represent emotion metaphors in music. Using this as her springboard, the talk progressed on to show how experience shapes the perception of emotion. Here, she demonstrated cross-cultural applications of the visual search task (innate preference for attending to one type of facial expression of emotion over another one), while also highlighting the role of music on memory for events unfolding in real-time. Libby made a compelling case as to how databases of facial expressions of emotion are very hard to be deployed in cross-cultural research, as human attentional preferences are very rarely universal and can sometimes be learned via affective factors gained through social exposure. A most interesting aspect of Dr. Damjanovic’s current work is on the topic of the effects of emotional music on recognition memory for dynamic visual events, and her utilisation of different approaches by which emotional music may influence memory. During a most stimulating Q&A session, the strengths of using visual search methodology over more conventional tasks such as categorisation and labelling tasks when applied to cross-cultural research were further highlighted, as well as how emotional music might influence performance on the visual search task.

Session 2

The second session began with an intriguing talk by Courtney Reed (Queen Mary University of London). Courtney’s talk raised the important topic of annotating emotions in an actual musical context instead of the common experiment setup where the focus is typically on only one specific musical parameter (e.g., harmonic progression, timbre, tempo). Courtney’s findings suggest that in describing perceived emotion there are seven key themes guiding the annotations: Instrument Entities, Expectation and Violation, Discrete Features, Instrumentation, Musical Structures, Performer Expression, and Visual Cues. The Symposium’s audience was evidently taken with the presented research, judging by the many questions and comments inspired by the talk.

The second talk of the session was delivered by Ilana Harris (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany). Ilana introduced a most fitting research topic to the Symposium’s theme, namely how group interaction in live music audiences may foster increased empathy through communication of emotion through body language and group dynamics. The Symposium’s audience was introduced to valuable and cutting-edge methods for emotion and empathy recognition in data mined video in regard to studying empathy-promoting musical components in audience behaviour – specifically in the case of electronic dance music audiences.

The session’s final speaker was Will Randall (University of Jyväskylä, Finland). Will introduced a tool for assessing real-time changes in emotional state during music listening called the MuPsych mobile app. The app’s task is to appraise the listener’s valence, arousal, and intensity of emotional state right from the moment the listening commences. This is measured again after five minutes of listening to check how the music actually influences the listener. In addition to this, the app also gathers data on relevant context variables (e.g., location and concurrent activity), music variables, reasons for listening, and emotion regulation strategies. As the app is evidently a useful tool in complementing existing methodological approaches in music and emotion research, it is no wonder that it raised immediate interest in the Symposium’s audience.

All in all, the three talks epitomised how the field is striving and indeed heading for better ecological validity through ambitious experimental setups, the creative use of new methods, and technological advancements harnessed for research. As the Symposium’s very goal was to share and discuss research methodologies, this session was no doubt a great inspiration for all researchers in the audience.

Session 3

Dr Jonna Vuoskoski set the final session into motion with an insightful look at individual variance in perceived and felt emotions. Study 1 showed that both current mood and personality have a significant impact on how people perceive music, current mood accounting for the largest part of the variance. In a unique follow-up experiment that assessed the individual differences in felt emotion, Jonna not only showed the importance of trait empathy in the strength of the emotional reaction, but showed that physiological measures differed with trait empathy too. The importance of using multiple methods, for a topic that underpins so much music emotion research (felt and perceived emotions), was duly acknowledged by the audience. Well considered questions about the implications of these findings were examined in the Q&A.

Rory Kirk took the second slot of the session, presenting an honest account of the problems that can be associated with physiological measures. In particular, a study on skin-conductance responses to performances was discussed. Rory focused upon the amount of variance collected through this methodology and highlighted significant problems from a psychological perspective of identifying trends in data. Multiple programmes were mentioned in the discussion, which have been designed to make the analysis of such data easier to interpret. However, there was a clear understanding that with ecologically valid stimuli physiological measures have the ability to differ significantly between persons.

Prof. Claire Arthur

Keynote: Prof. Dr. Fritz

Prof. Dr. Fritz

The last contribution to this full day was the second keynote presentation, delivered by Prof. Dr. Tom Fritz from the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive Brain Sciences in Leipzig. Professor Fritz gave a most memorable lecture, which started off by focusing on the communicative aspects of music as a whole body experience: from its processing in the auditory pathway, to how it has the ability to affect us when paired with a physical touch, and finally as to how it can improve learning and stimulate word processing. The highlight of Professor Fritz’s talk came from his presentation of the positive attributes of physical movement and training with the production of music via kinetic sensors, a method for which he got the inspiration from during his fieldwork among the Mafa tribe in Cameroon. The benefits of this music therapy application, appropriately called Jymmin (gym+jamming) are manifold, and explored from a very wide variety of angles as to their potential and beneficial application: from multiple enhancements of cognitive performance (divergent thinking and learning access), to increased endurance, decreased anxiety and chronic pain by giving people a sense that they are “in control”, to even rehabilitating stroke patients. Overall, the talk steered clear from a conventional conference-style presentation – the Professor had Jymmin’s kinetic sensors attached on his person, which would be activated upon lateral movement! Naturally, the presentation resulted in a rich Q&A session, in which a multitude of topics were raised: from ethnomusicological queries regarding the Mafa tribe’s cultural practices, to methodological questions relating to data capturing and analysis in muscular tension and self-efficacy, and naturally, on the benefits of applying Jymmin to the wider population.

Concluding comments on the day

The final discussion was led by Durham’s own Professor Tuomas Eerola. After thanking the keynotes and all speakers for their presentations, the concluding remarks highlighted the importance of the work still needed to be done in the field. The Workshop-Symposium theme was brought forth: methods and research on music evoked emotions. On the first aspect (methods), Professor Eerola stressed the importance of not only thinking about the methods being deployed in the field, but also on the questions being asked; the methods are the way of getting to where the questions lead us. In addition to this, it was also stressed that it would be extremely advantageous to have more databases freely available not just on methodology, but also on the analysis process of research, as part of transparent research purposes much often requested by peer-reviewed journals (you can read more on this topic here). It would be a boost in the field if we could all strive to be fully committed to data-sharing practices so that we can test ideas with existing datasets (ranging from physiology to MIR). On the second aspect (research), the fundamental problem is that we think of our field as being very broad, and covering all aspects of research methods in the course of a single MA module or University programme is counter-productive; it is not possible to host all research training methods in one institution. Professor Eerola brought the idea forward that a network approach – first on a personal level via networking at events such as this – could be possible in order to systematically work towards this direction. Turning the question to the audience, as to which is the most effective way to promote competencies and share expertise in efficient ways, several ideas were brought forth, the most important among many being the Inter-European Summer School being organised in July 2020 on the topic of musical ability (organised via ESCOM on knowledge exchange) which will include virtual hubs which will feature online presentation from experts in the field located across different hubs in Europe.

Prof. Eerola’s concluding comments

While all the talks inspired multiple questions from the audience and a significant amount of reflection, what brought them all together was a focus upon individual differences and their importance in the understanding of musical emotions. Numerous presentations on the limitations of current methodologies in assessing individual differences and new focused methodologies specifically for assessing inter-person data emerged. The importance of a continued focus upon this within the field and the move towards methodologies that can tease apart this under-represented feature of music psychology will be a key component in the future of music and emotions studies.

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