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Music’s emotional pitch revealed


Music’s ability to make us feel chirpy, sad, excited or just plain bored can be accurately predicted by only a few of its basic elements, an Australian scientist has discovered.

"Among other things, loudness, tempo and pitch have a measurable impact on people’s emotional response to music," says University of NSW music psychologist, Dr Emery Schubert.

His is the first study of its kind to mathematically quantify the emotional impact of music. Sixty-seven subjects listened to four classical musical compositions while they moved a mouse over a computer screen to indicate the emotion they felt was being expressed musically.

Their mouse movements indicated whether they found the music to be happy or sad and arousing or sleepy, on what Dr Schubert calls a "two-dimensional emotional space". These movements were automatically recorded by the computer once each second throughout the musical performance.

"The results tell us that arousal is associated with a composition’s loudness and to a lesser extent its tempo," says Dr Schubert, whose paper is to be published in the forthcoming issue of the journal, Music Perception. This was evident in the four compositions examined -- Slavonic Dance Opus No. 46 (Anton Dvorak), Concerto de Arunquez (Joaquin Rodrigo), Pizzicato Polka (Johan Strauss Jr and Josef Strauss) and ’Morning’ (Edvard Grieg).

"The happy-major, sad-minor relationship in music is already well known. My study suggests that the perception of happiness in music is associated with pitch and the number of instruments, although this was only evident in scores by Rodrigo and Grieg," says Dr Schubert. "Increasing happiness was associated with rising pitch in the Rodrigo, and more instruments in the Grieg composition."

Will the findings lead to a "compose-by-numbers" approach to music? "Not yet," says Schubert. "While we know that some musical parameters predict some emotions with a degree of certainty, musical features interact in complex ways, as do listener responses. Before we can compose musical emotions by numbers, we need to convert human experience and cultural knowledge variables into numbers, too. It will be some time before we can do this."

"Our emotional response to music is highly complex -- and has a lot to do with what we bring to the listening experience, such as memory, expectation and conditioning. Still, it’s true that composers through the ages have exploited mathematical relationships among rhythms, melodies, harmonies and other aspects of music to create and change emotion. What we’ve shown is that it is already possible to locate and quantify some of these emotions with some precision."

Dan Gaffney | EurekAlert!
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