Music and Emotion

Adagio for Strings Beautiful Music

Have you ever noticed that certain music can make you feel a very specific way? Music is very powerful stuff. It can uplift and depress, agitate and calm. It can offer relief and comfort. Let’s examine this idea a little further.

How Music Conveys Emotion

Even though there are countless works of music in the world (and countless people and countless experiences and circumstances), distinct characteristics and musical traits tend to make the listener feel a certain way when listening to specific music. Research has shown that any emotion experienced from listening to music is a direct result of the combination of structural, performance, listener, and contextual features of the piece (discussed in a study done by Klaus Scherer and Marcel R. Zentner; check it out here).

Let’s break that down.

Structural features include things like tempo, key signature, loudness level, melody, and rhythm. Each of these factors help determine the mood you will feel after listening to any given piece. Check out this nifty (and not comprehensive) table:

Structural Feature Associated Emotion
Tempo Fast: happiness, excitement, anger

Slow: sadness, serenity

Key Signature Major: happiness, joy

Minor: sadness

Loudness Intensity, power, anger
Melody Complementing harmonies: happiness, relaxation, serenity

Clashing harmonies: excitement, anger, unpleasantness

Rhythm Smooth: happiness, peace

Rough/irregular: amusement, uneasiness

Varied: joy

Let’s take a look at the piece Adagio for Strings by composer Samuel Barber. This work has a slow tempo, a minor key signature, ranging dynamics from soft to loud and back, a smooth melody and complimentary harmonies, and long, held-out rhythms. It has all of the characteristics of a “sad piece”, and many people describe Adagio for Strings as heartbreaking. What do you think?

Performance features combine the skill (physical appearance, reputation, technical ability, etc.) of the performer and the state of the performer (interpretation, stage presence, etc.).

*Side note: it interests me that the physical appearance of a performer can influence our emotional experience of a piece. Maybe that’s why concert dress is usually solid black?

Listener features refers to the listener – it considers factors such as personality, age, and knowledge of and motivation to listen to the music. So basically because of this, each listener will have a different emotional experience!

Contextual features include the location of and the occasion for the music (such as a wedding or a funeral).

*Fun fact: Scherer and Zentner have shown that this specific order (structural → performance→ listener→ contextual) is intentional: structural features have more “emotional impact” than contextual features, which has the least amount of emotional impact on the listener.

I have to say that these features are not black and white. Everyone experiences emotions differently in regards to music, and no piece will be perceived as 100% happy or sad. And there have been numerous scientific studies done to try to explain why we feel emotion when we listen to music.

But here’s what I think: people love to feel emotion. That’s why we listen to music. That’s why certain sounds resonate with us individually. Now I want to hear your story! What music makes you feel? What stories do you have about the power of music?

Before you go! I’m interested in writing about different emotions and classical pieces that evoke those emotions. Are there any pieces that – for you – conjure up a really strong emotion? Tell me so I can write about it!

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I'm a pianist, composer, writer, photographer, and overall classical-music-lover who is always open to new sounds.

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