The Emotion of Music

This week in my daughter’s Kindermusik for the Young Child class, Ms. Carol talked with the kids about how music is connected to emotion—that it can help us feel happy or sad. The kids even got a picture of a happy and sad boy that they could use to visualize this concept.

Later that evening, I went to band practice, where we spent some time together picking out our next song. Since our band has 2 female singers, we like to choose female artists to cover when we can.   Heart’s “These Dreams” came up as a possibility.


Yes, the hairstyles immediately date the video to the 1980’s.  But I knew it was from the 80’s for another reason: when we listened to together, I also found myself immediately wanting to run out of the room and get a drink of water—my typical reaction in junior high anytime a slow song came on at a school dance, so that I could avoid looking like the wallflower I felt myself to be. And, indeed, a quick check of the dates confirms that I was in 8th grade when the song was popular.

My fellow bandmate said that “Love Bites,” by Def Leppard, produced a similar, emotional response in her—taking her back to her early adolescence.

Then, yesterday, I got to play my guitar with another teacher as part of a retreat for the middle school students at my school. The song that she had chosen had emotional lyrics, but also a great crescendo part (another word the Young Child kids have been studying) that is designed to be fairly emotional. While we hadn’t practiced together before we performed it, I really enjoyed  playing it with her—there was tremendous satisfaction going from slow arpeggiation of the chords to full-out strumming, knowing that I was part of creating the emotion.

I’ve written before on the blog that music is connected to memories. And one needn’t have come of age in the era of power ballads to fully understand this even just from personal experience. But I find it interesting to think about how, exactly, music can evoke similar emotions in us, even without a shared memory—in other words, it isn’t merely the memory of being an awkward teenager that makes us feel a certain soulfulness listening to “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Also, science experiments show that we don’t have to understand the lyrics to have a fairly predictable emotional response to a particular song—indeed, some of the most emotional music we have comes from the classical genre and includes no lyrics whatsoever. Which also means that though years and even centuries separate us from those who were able to listen to Beethoven’s 9th symphony for the first time, we can still connect with them through what are probably very similar responses (though this is by no means universal—we are, after all, individuals).


Even certain chord structures can evoke particular emotions. One, in particular, is known as the Tristen chord. Much has been written about all the structures behind it, but the long and short of it is this: nothing about it gives us resolution, so we experience a tension, anticipation and longing. Exactly what Wagner wanted for the opening of his opera, Tristan und Isolde, from which the chord derives its name.

(If you’ve got 6 minutes, here is a fantastic video that shows the whole emotion of the music, and how it eventually resolves.)

Scientists, specifically the work of neurologist and composer Dr. Daniel Levitan, tell us that music is, “another way that the brain experiences pleasure.” (The Musical Brain, Christina Pochmursky, Matter of Fact Media, 2009, documentary film). In other words, we get all sorts of dopamine hits when listening to a song we love. We experience brain activity that is very primal, connected to our survival and reproduction instincts.  (Dopamine, you’ll remember from your science class, is the neurotransmitter in our brains responsible for moving us to act in order to get a reward.)

It is no surprise, then, that being in Kindermusik class with my kids has given me a great sense of emotional pleasure, and has been a fun way to connect, emotionally, with my kids during some very formative years. As my kids get older, I continue to enjoy watching them move and create music of their own. Certainly, it’s a different experience than singing a lullaby with them. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine a better way to create a shared bonding with them than through music.

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