Emotional responses to music – without a sound

Music prompts strong emotional responses in people – but often it’s not just the sounds that shape what emotion we experience. Many inbuilt expectations and preferences set up our emotional framework for music, even notions that don’t even relate to the music being played.

Flinders University music researcher Dr Marco Susino has conducted a study with Professor Emery Schubert of UNSW that systematically demonstrated people’s emotional reactions to music without any music being played. Undertaking fieldwork in Cuba and Australia, the researchers explored how assumptions effect human responses to music, even in the absence of music, based on a diverse and rich cultural meaning.

They found that people’s emotional responses and feelings towards the music change depending on what music genre label it is described as – even when lyrics were exactly the same. To explore this, they used original lyric excerpts but labelled them according to wildly different genres. For instance, a lyric labelled as heavy metal produced a completely different emotional response than when the same lyric was described to listeners as Japanese Gagaku, without the need of playing any music.

“We explain these results as emotion expectations induced by extra-musical cues,” says Dr Susino. “This means that our emotional responses are partly based on pre-conceived ideas of what we expect the music will make us feel, regardless of what the music is actually expressing.

Dr Marco Susino

“Music genre labels alone can affect the emotional responses that music can communicate, independent of the emotion contribution made by psychoacoustic features or the sentiment of the lyrics”.

“It means that some people have already settled on their emotional responses without even hearing the music, by drawing on prejudices or stereotypes around particular genres of music.

“This shows that what music makes us feel might not all be related to the music itself, but to what we think it should make us feel.”

The study’s results – Musical emotions in the absence of music: A cross-cultural investigation of emotion communication in music by extra-musical cues, by Marco Susino and Emery Schubert – have been published by PLOS ONE (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0241196 ).

While music has a recognised power in eliciting emotions, this paper emphasises how complex it is to understand music’s ability to communicate emotion. Dr Susino says it shows that humans draw on much more than just the sound or lyrics as we encounter them through music. “We call upon a whole lifetime of learning, feelings, associations and even stereotypes as we emotionally respond to music.”

The researchers also found that people of different cultures had different expectations towards music’s emotional content, which seriously questions the age-old saying that music possesses a universal language of emotions.

“Emotion in music is largely dependent upon and shaped by culture,” says Dr Susino.

Dr Susino explains this discovery has implications for emotional wellbeing and future research in the field of emotion studies and music. “Until now, we believed that musical emotions were always triggered by the music itself. These results suggest otherwise.

They also draw to our attention what similarities and differences can be expected across different cultures.”

Publication of this research marks a significant introduction of Dr Susino at Flinders University, as part of Assemblage Centre for Creative Arts. As a researcher, he investigates what processes are responsible for the communication of emotion in music and embodied expressions, and the effects of culture on such experiences.

Dr Susino is a visiting artist and scholar at the Juilliard School in New York, and his work has been performed across Europe, the Americas and Australasia. He has also been commissioned internationally, including at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) in Sydney, Sydney Opera House, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.

  • Dr Marco Susino recently hosted the seminar Neither Universal nor Culture-Specific Emotions:  A case for Adaptable Responses in the Communication of Emotions by Music at The MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development at Western Sydney University.
  • Dr Susino was interviewed for The Thread Wellbeing Podcast. Listen here >, and recently held a masterclass The Music that Moves Us: Choreographers and Composers, for Juilliard School.
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College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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