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Medical Emotional response when listening to instrumental music

  1. Jan 7, 2008 #1
    When listening to instrumental music, do the specific chords/tones/cadences trigger specific emotional respone from the brain, or would any emotions attached to music be related to an experience related to that music.

    ie. would E- to D+ trigger a specific emotion, or would it depend on each person's individual experience on which emotion music would portray?

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 7, 2008 #2


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    I don't have any education in this field, but my personal opinion is that most reaction to music is experience-based. There will certainly always be particular sounds that are soothing, and others that are irritating. I'm not sure that one can actually demarcate where 'sound' ends and 'music' begins. A violin can quite accurately mimic the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard, and a bass oboe once sounded enough like one of my 5-megaton beer farts that it scared my wife off of the couch. On the other hand, rain on a tin roof can be very comforting.
  4. Jan 7, 2008 #3
    I think certain combinations of notes trigger responses that are hard-wired in the brain, rather than triggering memories of experiences. This would explain why people with radically different backgrounds and experiences sometimes react in a similar manner to specific music.
  5. Jan 7, 2008 #4


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    The other side of that, though, is that some music is associated with particular circumstances and can thus evoke the emotion that was present when it became prominent. It is somewhat similar to scent in that regard. For instance, whenever I hear 'Born to Run' I can feel that 440 throbbing and my hand on the shifter. Likewise, I'd probably get as horny as a mink if a warthog strolled up wearing 'Sung' perfume, because that's what the ex-from-hell used.
    On the other hand, I love everything that Simon & Garfunkle did except 'Bridge Over Trouble Water', due entirely to a total ***** of a music teacher that I had in grade 8. I hate that song because it reminds me of her.

    As for tonality, one of Asimov's essays dealt with a mathematical way of determining pleasant note combinations for songwriting.
  6. Jan 8, 2008 #5

    jim mcnamara

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    As a quick aside - During the 1500's and up to JS Bach's time, there were many different musical scales developed. You actually have to retune your instrument to a Pytharogrean tuning for older pieces, for example. For harpsichord, or other multi-stringed instruemnts, this is painful.

    As far as actual scales go, it is the relation of one pitch to another that we listen to, not the absolute pitch, so there are no wolf tones in thirds, for example. Dissonance ala Charles Ives is a whole 'nother issue.

    google for 'Margo Schulter' and read her essays on tuning and musical scale theories.
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2008
  7. Jan 13, 2008 #6
    jim, are you sure it's because instruments in that day weren't just made for one particular key?

    But yes, music is about intervals, not so much absolute notes. Going from A to C should sound very similar to going from D to F.

    What I can't say is whether this is a learned "response" or whether it's biological. i.e. do we just pick up that a minor third is a sad interval, or is it ingrained in us?
  8. Jan 13, 2008 #7
    Music is definitely about intervals. The modern 12-tone scale is a mathematical solution to the problem of approximating scales to natural harmonics.

    Regarding the happy-major-third / sad-minor-third question of biological versus learned response, hopefully someone has done (or will do) an experiment out there. Any grad students?
    Last edited: Jan 13, 2008
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