An exploratory study of musical emotions and psychophysiology

Can J Exp Psychol. 1997 Dec;51(4):336-53. doi: 10.1037/1196-1961.51.4.336.


A basic issue about musical emotions concerns whether music elicits emotional responses in listeners (the 'emotivist' position) or simply expresses emotions that listeners recognize in the music (the 'cognitivist' position). To address this, psychophysiological measures were recorded while listners heard two excerpts chosen to represent each of three emotions: sad, fear, and happy. The measures covered a fairly wide spectrum of cardiac, vascular, electrodermal, and respiratory functions. Other subjects indicated dynamic changes in emotions they experienced while listening to the music on one of four scales: sad, fear, happy, and tension. Both physiological and emotion judgements were made on a second-by-second basis. The physiological measures all showed a significant effect of music compared to the pre-music interval. A number of analyses, including correlations between physiology and emotion judgments, found significant differences among the excerpts. The sad excerpts produced the largest changes in heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance and temperature. The fear excerpts produced the largest changes in blood transit time and amplitude. The happy excerpts produced the largest changes in the measures of respiration. These emotion-specific physiological changes only partially replicated those found for nonmusical emotions. The physiological effects of music observed generally support the emotivist view of musical emotions.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Factor Analysis, Statistical
  • Humans
  • Music / psychology*