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Why does different music trigger different emotions?

Why does different music trigger different emotions?
Paige Day from Hampshire (age 5-14)

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One Response

  1. Good question Paige and one we can’t fully answer! Music often affects us emotionally for reasons that are personal to the individual; for example, we may associate a piece of music with a particularly joyous or sad event in our lives. But some music tends to trigger broadly similar emotions in us all. In the western tradition, music with a slow tempo in a minor key tends to evoke sadness or pathos, while a major key paired with a rapid tempo is generally cheerful. Similarly, some combinations of notes sound good together (consonance) while others do not (dissonance). Dissonant notes are often perceived as sounding unpleasant, or even conveying fear, indeed one of the most dissonant intervals, an augmented fourth (e.g. the notes C and F# played together), was known in the middle ages as “the devil in music”. While it’s important to appreciate that cultural influences may contribute to our reactions (what may be dissonant in one tradition may be consonant in another), there does seem to be a physical basis to consonance and dissonance. Consonant notes tend to fit together physically in the sense that the relationships between the waveforms of the sound are simpler (e.g. the frequency doubles between a note and its octave) than is the case for dissonance. Dissonant chords tend to sound unstable and the transition from unstable dissonance to stable consonance, known as resolution, often generates those spine tingling moments we find so intensely enjoyable. Recent brain imaging experiments suggest that different combinations of notes evoke different responses in the brain. Dissonant sounds were found to activate a region of the brain that is also activated by unpleasant images, while music listeners identified as giving pleasurable chills activated regions of the brain associated with pleasurable, rewarding activities. However, why the brain responds to particular sounds in these different ways is still a mystery.

    Dr Adrian Rees, Reader in Auditory Neuroscience, Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University

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