Scientists Create an Interactive Map of the 13 Emotions Evoked by Music: Joy, Sadness, Desire, Annoyance, and More

Most of our playlists today are filled with music about emo­tions: usu­al­ly love, of course, but also excite­ment, defi­ance, anger, dev­as­ta­tion, and a host of oth­ers besides. We lis­ten to these songs in order to appre­ci­ate the musi­cian­ship that went into them, but also to indulge in their emo­tions for our­selves. As for what exact­ly evokes these feel­ings with­in us, lyrics only do part of the job, and per­haps a small part at that. In search of a more rig­or­ous con­cep­tion of which son­ic qual­i­ties trig­ger which emo­tions in lis­ten­ers — and a mea­sure­ment of how many kinds of emo­tions music can trig­ger — sci­en­tists at UC Berke­ley have con­duct­ed a cross-cul­tur­al research project and used the data to make an inter­ac­tive lis­ten­ing map.

The study’s cre­ators, a group includ­ing psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Dacher Kelt­ner (found­ing direc­tor of the Greater Good Sci­ence Cen­ter) and neu­ro­science doc­tor­al stu­dent Alan Cowen, “sur­veyed more than 2,500 peo­ple in the Unit­ed States and Chi­na about their emo­tion­al respons­es to these and thou­sands of oth­er songs from gen­res includ­ing rock, folk, jazz, clas­si­cal, march­ing band, exper­i­men­tal and heavy met­al.” So writes Berkley News’ Yas­min Anwar, who sum­ma­rizes the broad­er find­ings as fol­lows: “The sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of music across cul­tures can be mapped with­in at least 13 over­ar­ch­ing feel­ings: Amuse­ment, joy, eroti­cism, beau­ty, relax­ation, sad­ness, dreami­ness, tri­umph, anx­i­ety, scari­ness, annoy­ance, defi­ance, and feel­ing pumped up.”

Many lis­ten­er respons­es can’t have been ter­ri­bly sur­pris­ing. “Vivaldi’s ‘Four Sea­sons’ made peo­ple feel ener­gized. The Clash’s ‘Rock the Cas­bah’ pumped them up. Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Togeth­er’ evoked sen­su­al­i­ty and Israel (Iz) Kamakawiwoʻole’s ‘Some­where over the Rain­bow’ elicit­ed joy.

Mean­while, heavy met­al was wide­ly viewed as defi­ant and, just as its com­pos­er intend­ed, the show­er scene score from the movie Psy­cho trig­gered fear.” The cul­tur­al influ­ence of Hitch­cock, one might object, has by now tran­scend­ed all bound­aries, but accord­ing to the study even Chi­nese clas­si­cal music gets the same basic emo­tions across to Chi­nese and non-Chi­nese lis­ten­ers alike.

Still, all respectable art, even or per­haps espe­cial­ly an abstract one such as music, leaves plen­ty of room for per­son­al inter­pre­ta­tion. You can check your own emo­tion­al respons­es against those of the Berke­ley sur­vey’s respon­dents with its inter­ac­tive lis­ten­ing map. Just roll your cur­sor over any of point on its emo­tion­al ter­ri­to­ries, and you’ll hear a short clip of the song lis­ten­ers placed there. On the penin­su­la of cat­e­go­ry H, “erot­ic, desirous,” you’ll hear Chris Isaak, Wham!, and a great many sax­o­phon­ists; down in the nether­lands of cat­e­go­ry G, “ener­giz­ing, pump-up,” Rick Ast­ley’s immor­tal­ized “Nev­er Gonna Give You Up” and Alien Ant Far­m’s nov­el­ty cov­er of “Smooth Crim­i­nal.” Anwar also notes that “The Shape of You,” Ed Sheeran’s inescapable hit, “sparks joy” — but if I have to hear it one more time at the gym, I can assure you my own emo­tion­al response won’t be quite so pos­i­tive.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Daniel Lev­itin Shows How Musi­cians Com­mu­ni­cate Emo­tion

Watch Clas­si­cal Music Get Per­fect­ly Visu­al­ized as an Emo­tion­al Roller Coast­er Ride

The Ther­a­peu­tic Ben­e­fits of Ambi­ent Music: Sci­ence Shows How It Eas­es Chron­ic Anx­i­ety, Phys­i­cal Pain, and ICU-Relat­ed Trau­ma

Neu­rosym­pho­ny: A High-Res­o­lu­tion Look into the Brain, Set to the Music of Brain Waves

An Inter­ac­tive Map of the 2,000+ Sounds Humans Use to Com­mu­ni­cate With­out Words: Grunts, Sobs, Sighs, Laughs & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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