When I’m feeling angry and need something to match my energy, I turn to Rico Nasty’s special brand of punk rap. When I’m ready to calm down, I’ll switch to a more soothing artist, like Nao or Alina Baraz. I know I’m not alone in this—whether you’re having a party or just want to zen out, you pick a playlist to fit the vibe. The impact of music on emotions isn’t a new field of study, but researchers at University of California, Berkeley, have taken it a step further by mapping how music evokes a range of emotional responses.
Led by post-doctoral researcher Alan Cowen, PhD, a researcher at Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, the team of scientists asked nearly 3,000 people from the U.S. and China to record the feelings they associated with different songs, examining the responses to see how consistent the emotional associations were across cultures.
“We arrived at the findings that at least 13 different emotions were reliably conveyed by the music—more than people have thought,” says Dr. Cowen. The identifiabel emotions include: amusing, annoying, anxious/tense, beautiful, calm/relaxing/serene, dreamy, energizing, erotic/desirous, indignant/defiant, joyful/cheerful, sad/depressing, scary/fearful, and triumphant/heroic.
Take for example an instrumental sample of “The Morning” by The Weeknd. Thirty-seven percent of the listeners found it “dreamy,” 33 percent found it “romantic and loving,” 30 percent found it “erotic and desirous,” and 27 percent found it “calm, relaxing and serene.” On the other end of the spectrum, fully 80 percent of listeners were “energized” by Eric Prydz’s “Call On Me,” so bookmark that one for your next workout.
“Instrumental music is fascinating to us because it has no concrete narrative meaning, but somehow evokes rich emotions,” says Dr. Cowen. “In this study, we were interested in taking advantage of that quality of music to probe the richness and variety of the emotions people reliably feel in multiple cultures.”
The right music can help you be more productive at work, crush at your workout, and get to sleep easier. Understanding how we respond emotionally to different types of music brings us closer to allowing machines to pick the music for us, says Dr. Cowen.
Jamie Pabst, founder of sonic wellness app Spiritune, which allows users to play music that was scientifically composed to relieve stress (available for download on the App Store), says this study adds more fuel to the fire for using music as more than just entertainment. “We as humans associate music emotionally,” says Pabst. “We should be using it more and more as a tool for emotional regulation.”
Have you ever taken a yoga class and then realized you were breathing along with the beat? That’s entrainment. Humans are unique as the only species for which all individuals experience this phenomenon. It’s why you instinctively move to a rhythm. “Our rhythmic functions such as heart rate, breath rate, even our brainwave activity naturally wants to respond to the auditory stimuli,” she says.
Cowen says examining the link between music and our emotions is allowing researchers to better understand human emotionality.
“We’re finding across studies with large data sets and more sophisticated statistical models that our subjective experience of emotion is incredibly rich, comprises a wide array of nuanced feelings, and involves many different blends among these feelings,” he says. “It’s big departure from approaches that sort emotions into six mutually exclusive categories or onto two broad dimensions of pleasantness and arousal.”
Next, Cowen and his colleagues are investigating how the emotions evoked by music are actualized in the brain, extending his current work to test within more cultures and training algorithms that can be used as models for how the human brain might process music.
Here’s what it’s like to jam out all day long in a dance cardio marathon:
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