In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international team of researchers examined the feelings evoked by 2,168 music excerpts in the U.S. and China. Using large-scale statistical tools, the scientists uncovered 13 distinct types of subjective experience associated with music in both cultures: amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and feeling pumped up.

Cowen et al mapped 13 key emotions triggered when we listen to music. Image credit: Cowen et al, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1910704117.

Cowen et al mapped 13 key emotions triggered when we listen to music. Image credit: Cowen et al, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1910704117.

Central to the meaning of music are the subjective experiences that it evokes.

Performers across cultures can convey intense feelings with songs and instruments of different kinds and often do so by relying on acoustic features and associated percepts — such as pitch, loudness, pace — characteristic of the human vocal expression of emotion and of speech.

What is not well understood is how music evokes feelings in listeners

“Music is a universal language, but we don’t always pay enough attention to what it’s saying and how it’s being understood,” said Alan Cowen, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

“We wanted to take an important first step toward solving the mystery of how music can evoke so many nuanced emotions.”

“We have rigorously documented the largest array of emotions that are universally felt through the language of music,” said University of California, Berkeley’s Professor Dacher Keltner.

The study involved more than 2,500 people in the U.S. and China recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk and a multi-institutional participant pool.

First, 111 U.S. participants scanned thousands of videos on YouTube for music evoking a variety of emotions. From those, the researchers built a diverse library of 1,841 music samples.

Next, 1,011 participants from the U.S. and 895 from China each rated some 40 music samples based on 28 different categories of emotion, as well as on a scale of positivity and negativity, and for levels of arousal.

Using statistical analyses, the scientists arrived at 13 overall categories of experience that were preserved across cultures and found to correspond to specific feelings.

To ensure the accuracy of these findings, the team recruited 580 new participants from the U.S. and 363 from China.

The volunteers rated 138 additional Western and 189 traditional Chinese music samples that were specifically intended to evoke variations in valence and arousal. Their responses validated the 13 categories.

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 Kamakawiwoole’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.

While both U.S. and Chinese study participants identified similar emotions, they differed on whether those emotions made them feel good or bad.

“People from different cultures can agree that a song is angry, but can differ on whether that feeling is positive or negative,” Cowen said.

“Positive and negative values, known in psychology parlance as ‘valence,’ are more culture-specific.

The study authors also translated the data into an interactive audio map, where visitors can move their cursors to listen to any of thousands of music snippets to find out, among other things, if their emotional reactions match how people from different cultures respond to the music.