Music and emotion research seeks to understand the ways music is able to express a rich variety of emotions and how music induces intense emotional experiences in listeners. In the Durham Music & Science Lab, we focus on two fundamental topics

  • The pleasure of listening to sad music
  • Musical properties of emotions

The pleasure of listening to sad music

The experience of sadness when listening to music is a fascinating puzzle. It consists of seemingly conflicting emotional experiences: music induces a range of positive emotions even though sadness as an emotion is considered to be negative. Our research using several samples and methods has suggested that sad music generates three types of emotional experiences: truly sad, comforting, and pleasurable (Eerola & Peltola, 2016). Sad music can lead to feelings of pleasure related to enjoyment of the music in some people, and feelings of comfort where sad music evokes memories. People also report painful experiences associated with listening to sad music, which invariably related to personal loss such as the death of a loved one, divorce, breakup, or other significant adversity in life. In lab-based listening experiments, we have shown that sad music is able to generate similar negative biases in cognitive processing to those produced by real, autobiographically-induced sadness (Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012).

Recently we have discovered that while many people report feeling relaxed and peaceful after listening to sad instrumental music, only highly empathic people report being deeply moved by such music (Eerola, Vuoskoski & Kautiainen, 2016). Sad music is – not surprisingly – used to regulate moods and to reflect and gain perspective in challenging situations in life (Eerola, Peltola & Vuoskoski, 2015).

For a concise summary, read a piece on Why sad songs say so much (to some people, but not others) in The Conversation.

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Our music and sadness studies have been funded by the Academy of Finland.

Musical properties of emotions

Are the musical properties and the emotions that music expresses intrinsically linked?

For instance, music in major mode with a fast tempo is usually assumed to be happier than slow music in minor mode. However, we have established that there are more systematic and subtle combinations of musical devices, such as timbre (Eerola et al., 2012), register, and articulation, that consistently convey particular types of emotions (Eerola, Friberg & Bresin, 2013). We’ve also shown that even mere chords provide a nuanced communication of a variety of expressions (Lahdelma & Eerola, 2016). Some of these musical devices even cross cultural boundaries (Laukka, Eerola, Thingujam, Yamasaki & Beller, 2013).

Research on emotions expressed by music is at an exciting juncture right now. The millions of tracks that are available in streaming services allow large-scale acoustic analysis of emotions (Eerola, 2011); these also offer opportunities to look at the ways people describe and ‘tag’ the music they listen to (Saari & Eerola, 2014). One of the major applications of this research is music retrieval and recommendation based on the mood of the music (Saari et al., 2016).

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