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Sound and Interaction research report

Sound and its effect on emotion

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything” – Plato

We experience a part of the world through our sense of hearing. The sense of hearing can be taken for granted as it occurs constantly and subconsciously, gathering, processing and interpreting information carried through sound. Music can be created from sounds that have certain qualities like rhythm, pitch, and silence. Through this rhythm of sounds and silence that we call music, emotion can be elicited in the listener. So, why does this happen? To explore why music elicits an emotional response from the listener, elements of music and emotion will be explored.


Unique music from a special instrument evoking emotion from the audience


Creating music, depending which angle it is observed from, can be seen as an art or science. Music is heard as art when artists use the combination of vocal and/or instrumental sounds as an avenue to express themselves creatively. Essentially producing a piece of work that is an extension of their creative capabilities. The work created allows the audience to gain a glimpse of the artist’s interpretation of an experience or a certain aspect of the world. This “portal” takes the audience through to the artist’s creative world and is an intimate glimpse at another’s view on the world. The greater the thought and emotion put into the work, although on the outset may appear simple, the deeper entrenched the audience is capable of becoming. The science aspect of music is in the organisation of rhythm, melody and harmony. Science is in itself a form of art, as it requires a deep understanding of all elements to create a work that works in collaboration and functions as one. Emotive music relies on the artistic aspect as much as it relies on the scientific aspect behind its creation. Music is important to many people, in many different cultures. Music is an indispensable component in ceremonial, spiritual, and social activities in all cultures around the world. An example of this is the Himalayan singing bowl used in relaxation and meditation – the bowl plays a single note when rubbed or hit. The vibrations of the bowl create a harmonic humming sound that resonates to the specific frequency. A single note or a noise is considered music to some. To people like 20th century composer John Cage music doesn’t have to be a collection of notes carefully chosen and placed between other notes and silence, as he once stated “There is no noise, only sound.” With sound and music being a large part of all cultures around the world, a wide variety of sounds will be considered to be music. Musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez carries this view: “The Border between music and noise is always culturally defined – which implies that, even within a single society, this border does not always pass through the same place; in short, there is rarely a consensus… By all accounts there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be.” With these two schools of thought, the importance of any sort of sound is highlighted.


‘Time’ by Hans Zimmer – emotive music from the movie Inception


The aesthetics of music is a sub-discipline of philosophy. Aesthetics of music deals with the appreciation and formation of beauty in music. This difficult area of study, attempts to answer the question: what makes music beautiful? The reason this question is difficult to answer is because there really is no answer. Although music can be looked upon as a science, it is by far widely known as art. Attempts to label a piece of art as beautiful and another as not so beautiful, is like trying to debate whether an iPhone is better than a Samsung Galaxy, or whether Canon cameras are better than Nikon. There will never be a consensus for any of these questions. Depending on the person the answer will vary. As this is to do with music, it’s even trickier. The answer now swings and changes according to a person’s mood, psychology, background, knowledge of music, or whether someone cut them off in traffic. What is beautiful to one listener may not be so to another listener. What was beautiful to a listener in the morning may not yield the same answer at night. The beauty of music is not in the music itself, but in the emotions it elicits in the listener.


‘Raindrops’ by Jesse Wilson – happy piano 


Emotion is a state of mind that results from physical and psychological changes in behaviour and thought. There are many theories about how music influences a listener’s emotion. Music can relax, energise, dampen, encourage, and influence in many other ways. Music is said to encourage the mind to think. Encouraging the mind to think encourages the mind to think creatively. Great minds and thinkers like Mozart, Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Einstein all had in common that they continually pushed the limits of their creative imagination. Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”


‘River flows in you’ by Yiruma – nostalgic piano 


Frequently music is utilised to establish an emotional tone for a movie. The changes brought on by listening to music is non-attentional the first time it occurs and attentional the second. As audience members watch a film and listen to the music intently, they are likely to be infected by music in the film, which results in it occurring more often as audience member begins to be more conscious of it. If an audience member experiences happiness as an emotional response to a piece of music, listeners might take the response as though the music mirrors the qualities of happiness. Stephen Davies, a philosopher in the aesthetics of music, allows experiences can be mirrored in music; however, this isn’t the reason behind why emotions surface while listening to music. What is required is that the listener experience the emotion that is resembled in the music listened to: “So much for the dependence, what of the response? What form does it take when what is experienced is music’s expressiveness? I believe it is an experience of resemblance between music and the realm of human emotion”. The resemblance isn’t through human emotion, but through external behaviours like attitude, air, posture, gait, and style.


Josh Thompson – angry piano


Considering the art behind the creation of music, to gain a notion of how it interacts with our emotions is a hardy task. There is no definite answer to this phenomenon. The view that favours the expressive nature of music comes across as a solid reason behind emotive responses from music. The resemblance in the music of behaviours like gait, style, air and posture to change states such as happiness, anger, sadness and energy. If mirroring or mimicry brought upon emotive states, the listener would mirror the physical movements of the singer in vocal music. The flexing and tensing of vocal muscles heard in the singer would cause tensing and flexing in the voice box of the listener. One of these theories may be more prominent, or perhaps they could be working simultaneously.


“Artistic Expression and the Hard Case of Pure Music” – Davies, S. (2006)

“The development of music perception and cognition” – Dowling, W. J. (2002)”–How-Understanding-Their-Connection-Could-Impact-Autism-Treatment.html

The first potential topic for my Research Report

Sound and its influence on emotion

Through this report (if this topic is chosen) I’d like to learn about how and why sound can influence a person’s emotion. There is no mistake that sound does influence emotion. It’s use as an emotion provoker is evident in cinema, theatre and music. Sound works just as effectively at a rock concert to stimulate as it does in meditation to enhance relaxation. Artists use their skill and knowledge of this topic to captivate their audience. To develop media works that truly connect with its audience, a deeper understanding of how the mind interacts with sound will be highly beneficial.