From everyday emotions to aesthetic emotions: towards a unified theory of musical emotions

Phys Life Rev. 2013 Sep;10(3):235-66. doi: 10.1016/j.plrev.2013.05.008. Epub 2013 May 29.


The sound of music may arouse profound emotions in listeners. But such experiences seem to involve a 'paradox', namely that music--an abstract form of art, which appears removed from our concerns in everyday life--can arouse emotions - biologically evolved reactions related to human survival. How are these (seemingly) non-commensurable phenomena linked together? Key is to understand the processes through which sounds are imbued with meaning. It can be argued that the survival of our ancient ancestors depended on their ability to detect patterns in sounds, derive meaning from them, and adjust their behavior accordingly. Such an ecological perspective on sound and emotion forms the basis of a recent multi-level framework that aims to explain emotional responses to music in terms of a large set of psychological mechanisms. The goal of this review is to offer an updated and expanded version of the framework that can explain both 'everyday emotions' and 'aesthetic emotions'. The revised framework--referred to as BRECVEMA--includes eight mechanisms: Brain Stem Reflex, Rhythmic Entrainment, Evaluative Conditioning, Contagion, Visual Imagery, Episodic Memory, Musical Expectancy, and Aesthetic Judgment. In this review, it is argued that all of the above mechanisms may be directed at information that occurs in a 'musical event' (i.e., a specific constellation of music, listener, and context). Of particular significance is the addition of a mechanism corresponding to aesthetic judgments of the music, to better account for typical 'appreciation emotions' such as admiration and awe. Relationships between aesthetic judgments and other mechanisms are reviewed based on the revised framework. It is suggested that the framework may contribute to a long-needed reconciliation between previous approaches that have conceptualized music listeners' responses in terms of either 'everyday emotions' or 'aesthetic emotions'.

Keywords: Aesthetics; Arousal; Emotion; Listening; Music; Theory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Emotions*
  • Esthetics / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Judgment
  • Music / psychology*