Updated: 7 October, 2013.


Social Influences and Musical Emotion

Previous music and emotion literature has focused on emotional responses in the individual, while he or she is alone and listening to music. However, music is often experienced in a social context- think pubs, clubs and festivals. With this in mind, the influence of a social setting on the emotional responses to music needs to be considered.

Research has largely ignored the influence of social factors on emotions (Manstead, 2005). This is unfortunate, as music is commonly associated with many social aspects apparent in everyday life (North & Hargreaves, 2008). For example, peer groups are known to influence the musical preferences of adolescents (Müller, Glogner, & Rhein, 2007) and the social bonding aspects of music have been suggested as the origins of music (Cross, 2009; Freeman, 2000; McNeill, 1995).



Of course snowball is waaaaay cooler (and alone) so there are opposing arguments...



Empirical studies have been able to demonstrate supporting evidence in favour of a social bonding hypothesis. For example, Kirschner & Tomasello (2009, 2010) showed that children's drumming synchronisation improved in a social setting and that joint musical activity improved pro-social and cooperative behaviour. For more information about this you can see my MSc dissertation.

Another experiment by Wiltermuth (2010) revealed that moving and singing in synchrony can lead an individual to better comply with another's behavioural requests (even if for malicious reasons). Look at page 74 of the ICMPC11 conference proceedingspage 74 of the ICMPC11 conference proceedings. Other experiments report on the emotional responses to music which occur within the presence of others. Research examining strong experiences with music (SEM) has found social context to be an influential factor effecting emotional experiences (Gabrielsson & Lindström Wik, 2003) and more recently Lamont (2009) found SEMs to occur during live concerts. This bring to question: how does the presence of others alter emotional experience during music listening?

Before proceeding, we must first ask 'What are emotions?" That is, emotions can be understood from many different angles (models). One prominent model of emotion in music is the component process model by Scherer (2004). Under this model an emotion episode is triggered by a cognitive evaluation process and contains three reaction components: physiological arousal, motor expression and subjective feelings. Also, this model distinguishes between utilitarian and aesthetic emotions. These emotions differ based on their goal relevance. Utilitarian emotions help us adapt to events that have direct personal relevance to us, like those with important consequences for our wellbeing. Think of being scared of a tiger. Being scared prompts you for the fight-or-flight response and in turn directs your goal towards survival. In this way, utilitarian emotions lead to distinct and proactive changes in physiology and behaviour and incorporate such emotions as anger, fear, joy, disgust, sadness, shame, and guilt. These emotions and there adaptive consequences on our physiology and behaviour can result in action tendencies (such as the previously mentioned flight or flight). In contrast, aesthetic emotions lack this direct relevance and so lead to reactive physiological and behavioural changes. For example, the emotional response or 'aesthetic experience' of art is not influenced by the ability of the art to satisfy biological needs or to help us achieve a goal. So our the emotional reaction to art is a product of an appreciation for the intrinsic beauty of the work. Examples of aesthetic emotions include awe, wonder, and ecstasy (Scherer, 2004). This may help explain modern art's argument of 'art for art's sake'.

Others have suggested musical emotion to originate through different mechanisms, arguing that music research has failed to reach a consensus because it has either neglected the underlying psychological mechanisms responsible for evoking musical emotion or because it assumes that all music-induced emotion requires cognitive appraisal. Juslin and Västfjäll (2008) therefore explain how music is able to arouse emotion, giving examples such as the brain stem reflex, evaluative conditioning, visual imagery, episodic memory, musical expectancy, emotional contagion, and cognitive appraisal.

Many researchers in music have also been concerned with the chills response, a common and strong emotional response experienced during music listening. Panksepp (1995) has speculated that chills evolved from a separation-stress system used to promote social bonding. He explains that the origin of chills is tied to a bodily reaction caused by the separation calls made my young animals when left alone by their parents. The call induced coldness 'shiver down the spine' in those parents is though to function as a motivator for social reunion (Panksepp, 1995; Panksepp & Berntzky, 2002). There are other explanations which speculate on why humans have a chill response. There are of course other speculations as to why we humans have the chill response (chills makes our hair stand on end, which makes us look bigger when we are scared), but we won't get into them here. Sloboda (1991) furthered chills research by collecting reports of participants' strongest emotional reactions to music, which asked questions about participants' physiological reactions, such as chills, shivers down the spine, goosepimples (goosebumps), tears, and laughter. He then examined the relationship between the occurrence of these strong experiences and specific musical structures, finding chills to occur during new or unprepared harmonies as well as with sudden changes in dynamic or texture. Sloboda's research has been corroborated with more recent work as well (Guhn, Hamm, & Zenter, 2007), suggesting that musical events play a large role in music-induced chills. However, this does not imply that music-induced chills are solely dependent on sudden changes in musical structures. If this were the case then under the right musical circumstances everyone would experience music-induced chills. In fact, past research has shown that music-induced chills is a highly individualistic response (Blood & Zatorre, 2001).

A study by Grewe, Nagel, Kopiez, and Altenmüller (2007b) adds further support to the idea that music-induced chills are not automatic reflex-like responses to sudden changes in sound. Interestingly, this group found no specific musical structures which induced chills across a majority of their participants. This suggest then that a cognitive appraisal is taking place during music listening and that this appraisal, triggered by attention-raising structures in the music, leads to a chills response. This implies that familiarity and preference also play a role in influencing the intensity of listeners' emotions and chill responses to music (Grewe et al., 2009; Salimpoor et al., 2009), and indeed music known to consistently and reliably evoke chills in an individual is often one that is extremely familiar (Blood & Zatorre, 2001).

Previous literature suggests a real need for experiments to consider the social context of emotional responses to music, and indeed future research should take this into account. However, future studies also need to be aware of the underlying reasons why music is able to elicit emotion in the first place. That is, understanding why and how music is able to evoke emotion may be best understood through empirical investigations which incorporate a social factor into their design.



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Wiltermuth, S. (2010). Synchrony, compliance, and destructive obedience. In S. M. Demorest, S. J. Morriosn, & P. S. Campbell (Eds.), Procedings of the 11th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC). Seattle, WA, USA, 23-27 August 2010, p. 330 [CD-ROM].

About Me

I completed my MA in Psychology of Music (2010), and MSc in Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience (2011) from the University of Sheffield. I have recently started my PhD at Sheffield and am researching the biochemistry of music-induced chills. More ...