Young man listening to music through headphones outdoors against a background of colourful graffiti

Music and emotion

Our emotions are not only physiological and cognitive but they’re also very much about the events that occur to us. We not only feel emotions, but we feel emotions about things.

This is where the cognitive appraisal previously mentioned comes in. We feel different things about an event depending on whether we expected it or not, and on the context of that event.

Surprise!

So, for example, you might walk into a dark-ish building when, suddenly, a bunch of people jump out at you and make a lot of noise. It might turn out that it’s a surprise birthday party for you. Or perhaps you genuinely don’t know these people and are about to get robbed or injured, or worse. In any case, it’s a surprise you weren’t expecting.

The point here is that your emotional reaction will be different depending,

  • firstly, on what you expected to happen, and
  • secondly based on what appears to be happening.

Perhaps you might have to pretend to be surprised, or you might turn that genuine surprise into a laugh or excitement… or you might try and flee the building.

Chemical Reward

You may have previously heard of the neurochemical dopamine, which we mentioned earlier as the brain chemical that floods the brain when people take opiates.

Modern scientific research suggests that dopamine’s main purpose is as a ‘reward’ chemical. Specifically, it rewards us when we make predictions that turn out to be true, and it rewards us more the more unlikely the true prediction (which is why gambling can be addictive).

David Huron in the excellent book ‘Sweet Anticipation: Music And The Psychology Of Expectation’ argues that, if music we’ve never heard before makes us feel emotion, it’s because it’s hijacking the machinery of reward in the brain. Whenever we listen to music, we are listening to hear what will happen next, and we are comparing what happens with what we would expect to happen based on the thousands and thousands of hours of listening to music we’ve done across our lives.

Songs make us feel different emotions at different times (and different songs make us feel different emotions entirely), partly because they interact with the machinery of reward in the brain in different ways.

For Bohemian Rhapsody, the verses towards the start of the song, ‘Mama, just killed a man…’ , give us a very different feel to the rock’n’roll section towards the end of the song (the bit that goes ‘so you think you can stone me and spit in my eye…’.) Part of this is simply that the rock’n’roll bit is louder and faster, and we have a physiological response to that. But part of it is also that the rock’n’roll section plays with our musical expectations in entirely different ways. As a result, we get that hit of dopamine, that makes us feel good, in a different way.

Your task

Consider the material presented here, and have a think about the following questions:

How does the ‘Mama, just killed a man’ section of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ make you feel, personally, compared to the ‘so you think you can stone me and spit in my eye’ section?

What were the emotions you felt? Do you think others would have the same reactions as you? Could you understand if they felt differently?

Use the comments link to share your thoughts.

To help you with this task here is the video of the song again. You will find the two relevant sections at

  • 59 seconds (Mama) and at
  • 4 minutes and 20 seconds (Spit in your eye)

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

References

Huron, D. (2006). Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Pessiglione, M., Seymour, B., Flandin, G., Dolan, R. J., & Frith, C. D. (2006). Dopamine-dependent prediction errors underpin reward-seeking behaviour in humans. Nature, 442, 1042-1045. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05051

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This article is from the free online course:

Music Psychology: Why Does "Bohemian Rhapsody" Feel so Good?

Griffith University