In Alan Yentob’s recent BBC programme How Music Makes Us Feel, he discusses the links between music and emotion, physical characteristics of these emotions (such as why babies move to music), and why music enters where words leave off. Whilst Yentob perhaps focuses too much on the composer’s intentions rather than how the effects of these intentions actually make us feel, he does touch on a subject that lies at the core of music aesthetics and cognition, and raises questions over spontaneous versus culturally conditioned reactions.

The impact of music on our emotions has been discussed for centuries, stemming from Ancient Greek ideas on music being one of the most powerful forces. Spanning from fictional appearances in myth and literature to scientific study, the connections between music and emotions remain elusive – clearly prevalent and yet almost impossible to define and pin down. While recent tests have shown scientific proof for physical responses to music, it remains to be asked if this reaction is in response to something real or fictional.

Ancient Greek philosophers considered music to have the ability to restore a soul to its equilibrium, possessing ultimate control over our emotions. Emphasis was placed on warnings over the misuse of this power, and it was deemed the role of poetry to ensure the power of music remained ethically suitable. Renaissance humanists sought to revive this link between music and emotion, with opera seen as the perfect medium. Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) was based on the myth of Orpheus, whose singing and lyre-playing was said to influence nature and men. Upon entering Hades to bring his love back from the underworld, the libretto describes the power of Orpheus’s music:

He sleeps, and though my lyre

Awakens no pity

In his hard heart, at least his eyes

Cannot escape sleep at my singing.

By the end of both the myth and the opera, Orpheus’s soul has been ripped open and patched up again, referring to the ancients’ and humanists’ concept of music enabling the realignment of the soul. Yentob too gives an example of the power of music over action in Greek myths, referencing the Sirens’ luring of sailors to peril with song, as befell the companions of Odysseus.

Whilst modern discussions might refrain from speaking of music aligning our souls per se, we do still appear to hold the notion that classical music can have certain effects on its audience, including recent reports on it speeding up recovery from surgery, reducing crime levels in public areas, creating a relaxed atmosphere to encourage people to shop (!), &c., &c.. The ancients’ idea that music has a particular (and manipulable) effect on our emotions and actions, therefore still resonates five centuries later.

Academia has recently delved further in the search for scientific proof of a connection between music and emotion, and Carol Krumhansl has shown there to be strong physiological reactions to music. By measuring a subject’s cardio, vascular, electrodermal and respiratory functions while they listened to two excepts of music chosen to represent sad, fearful and happy emotions, Krumhansl proved that there was indeed a strong correlation between physiology and emotion. ‘Sad’ excerpts produced the most change in heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance and temperature; ‘fearful’ music resulted in the greatest changes in blood transit time and amplitude; and ‘happy’ excerpts produced most significant changes in respiration measures.

And, in response to a detailed questionnaire highlighting people’s strong physical responses to music, John Sloboda (who has been at the forefront of developments in music cognition) claimed a number of conclusions: tears were generally associated with a particular harmonies such as a cycle of fifths or appoggiatures; shivers were created from enharmonic changes or unprepared harmonies; and racing hearts from rhymthic syncopation. Sloboda therefore shows that musical emotions are dependent in some way upon affirmation and violations of expectancy. The extent to which this is culturally-dependent is considerable.

These findings radically disagree with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century views of music (and indeed art more widely), embodying an aesthetic autonomy. Discussions of music and emotions disappeared under the weight of Kant and Hume, and their adherence to the notion of art as a finite aesthetic, an end to itself and devoid of social value and cultural significance.

However, while we cannot ignore the scientific suggestion that music has a physiological emotional impact on us, further questions must be asked as to whether it is ‘real’ or ‘fictional’ emotion. Ben Winters, a specialist in film music, suggests that the emotion we experience when listening to music is similar to that experienced during a film, in that they are both ‘fictional’ emotions. Whilst sad music might remind us of a tragic event, that reminiscence is a personal or culturally-conditioned reaction beyond the music.

It is here that the influence of memory enters the equation. Writing for theartsdesk.com, Graeme Thompson correctly concluded that, in Yentob’s programme, ‘there was, oddly, very little discussion of perhaps music’s greatest power: to connect with memory’. Perhaps this is due to the possible minefield this would create over the associative power of music, the emotions created from music and/or memories and ways to distinguish between the two, or whether or not we need to. But it is impossible to consider the link between music and emotion delving briefly into this controversy.

When listening to music, the music itself causes a physiological response that perhaps should not be compared to emotions we feel from events in our everyday lives. In itself, the emotion caused by the music is purely fictional. It is up to the listener to make it a grounded, personal, real emotion. And it here that I believe our memory enters, creating the difference between a purely physiological reaction, and feeling genuinely moved in some way by music. Or indeed, the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic emotion (to use Sloboda’s terms) – that is emotion which is caused from the music itself compared to emotion which is produced as an association.

We could therefore say that music’s meaning – its significance beyond itself (if we can afford it one and judge it not as wholly autonomous) – is primarily an emotional one, and one which is dependent on us creating the association as a culturally-directed response. The emotions created in Krumhansl’s experiments are due to the composer’s particular use of tension and resolution, the structural foundations of Western classical music. And as such, we are beginning to align the emotive with the cognitive disciplines, accepting that our physical reactions to music might be due to an intrinsic, fictional emotion, but made real by own personal, extrinsic associations.