It’s no secret music can evoke emotions that express themselves physically. A new study out of Finland maps out where, exactly, we experience those sensations in the body, finding that song-induced responses, be they goosebumps or an increased heart rate, vary depending on the mood of the piece.
“Music that evokes different emotions, like joy, sadness, or fear, is felt in distinct parts of the body,” Vesa Putkinen, an academy research fellow at the University of Turku, said in a statement. “For example, happy and danceable music was felt in the arms and legs, while tender and sad music was felt in the chest area.”
Notably, the researchers found that music-induced emotions express themselves similarly across borders, suggesting the reactions likely occur independent of culture and learning and are instead based on biology and instinct, as with the urge to get up and dance when we hear a favorite catchy tune.
“Music’s influence on the body is universal,” neuroscientist Lauri Nummenmaa, co-author of a new study on the findings that appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said in a statement. That universality, the scientists say, may have evolved to enhance human social interaction and community.
Nummenmaa heads up the Human Emotion Systems laboratory at the university’s Turku PET Centre. The lab aims to better understand the neurochemical and functional mechanisms that support human emotions, as well as how their dysfunction impacts psychiatric and neurological disorders.
Happy, Scary, Tender, Sad
For their cross-cultural study, the team asked more than 1,500 participants from China, Western Europe and North America to listen to excerpts from 36 Western and 36 East Asian songs. The tunes belonged to six categories defined in part by a separate set of participants: happy, sad, scary, tender, aggressive and danceable/groovy.
“Music with a clear beat was found happy and danceable, while dissonance in music was associated with aggressiveness,” Nummenmaa said.
Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” landed in the happy camp, for example, while Slayer’s “Angel of Death” got categorized as aggressive. “Shallow” by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper fell into the sad bucket, as did Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”? Definitely tender.
The researchers then presented study subjects with a blank silhouette of a human body and asked them to use a tool for body sensation mapping to indicate through color where they experienced activity while listening to the pieces. The resulting bodily sensation maps, or BSMs, varied according to the emotional qualities of the songs, but save for a few small cultural exceptions remained consistent among study subjects from different parts of the world.
Volunteers typically felt tender and sad songs in the chest area and head, while scary songs produced sensations in the gut area. Happy and danceable songs led to sensations throughout the body, particularly in the limbs. Aggressive music also led to body-wide feedback, particularly in the head (cue the metal headbanging).
For its study, the University of Turku collaboration with Aalto University in Finland and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China.
The researchers acknowledge that emotions will naturally vary in intensity, duration and expression based on culture and context, as well as individual neural underpinnings. In supplementary study material, they also stress that they refer to “Western” and East Asian as cultures for heuristic purposes, but acknowledge that the terms “do not fully capture diverse musical backgrounds of the participants and that there exists a rich diversity of musical exposure within these cohorts, and that individuals within them may have encountered multiple musical cultures and possibly identify with various sub-cultures.”
Nonetheless, as indicated by a recent study exploring how favorite music can serve as a pain reliever, music is far more than just an auditory experience. Now please excuse me while I go see if listening to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” gives me happy feet.