Music, Emotion, and Pain Control

Also in the news this week, EPSRC funded researchers up in Glasgow have been investigating how we respond emotionally to music, and how this could lead to music being used in pain...
12 September 2010

Interview with 

Professor Raymond MacDonald, Dr Don Knox, Glasgow Caledonian University


Chris -  Also in the news this week, EPSRC funded researchers up in Glasgow have been investigating how we respond emotionally to music, and how this could lead to music being used in pain control. Sarah Castor-Perry caught up with the researchers involved to find out more ...

Professor Raymond Macdonald -  "We are all musical; every human being has a biological and social guarantee of musicianship. Everybody can learn to express themselves and communicate through music. Also, we are all musical in the sense that Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeterwe all respond emotionally to music. When we listen to music, we are moved in quite profound and powerful ways."

Sarah -  So whether it's a soothing classical melody, or a raging angry rock song, we all have a hugely emotional relationship with music. That was Professor Raymond MacDonald at Glasgow Caledonian University, who is part of a project being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to find out how music conveys emotion.

The project brings together Music Psychologists like Professor MacDonald, with expert audio engineers like Dr Don Knox, who has been using volunteers and specially developed computer software to analyse a huge range of pieces of contemporary music to determine the mood and emotion that they express.

Dr Don Knox -  " We try to classify and categorise music in terms of two axes - one of which is intensity and loudness and the other one is valence or stress - negative/positive stress. So they look at the general loudness and activity levels in the music and if they are above a certain point it might be classed as being exuberant and if it was negatively stressed it might be anxious or frantic. And we analyse and extract lots of audio and acoustical parameters from the music and map those pieces of music onto the axes."

Sarah -   But what makes us choose particular pieces of music in different situations?MaTrace Music Emotion Axes

Dr Don Knox -  "When we first say to people what we're doing, classifying music and emotion, some of the first comments you get are 'well, I put happy music on to do happy things and dance, and I'll put sad or relaxing music on to do this'. Really, it's much more complicated than that and the music psychologists are really opening our eyes to how people actually interact with music. That relationship and emotional connection with music and how people use it for stress relief and pain reduction is much more complicated than just happy music for happy things and sad music for sad things."

Sarah -  And classifying each piece of music in such a detailed way is allowing the music psychologists to figure out exactly what it is in the music that makes us choose it for a particular situation, and how it can affect not just our emotions, but our physical perception too.

Professor MacDonald explained to me how the project is building on previous studies, carried out with his colleague Laura Mitchell...

Professor MacDonald - "Earlier work purely looked at people's preference; so what we initially found out was that listening to your favourite music reduced your anxiety perceptions and your pain perceptions. We had a huge range of different types of music that was selected - things like Hotel California by the Eagles, Pachelbel's Cannon, In My Place by Coldplay. And we originally suggested that there were no common structural features between these pieces of music but Don's work along with Scott Beveridge has started to show how certain structural features of music are important in trying to predict their emotional effect on the listener."

Sarah -   So although there is still work to be done, the implications of the project are really exciting. On the one hand, knowing how people respond emotionally to particular structures found in music, like rhythm and timbre, could have clinical applications in music therapy and using music for pain control, and also, for all those music lovers out there addicted to their mp3 players, it could herald a new way of classifying the music in your library and new ways of searching for music to match your mood.

How music conveys emotion could benefit the treatment of depression and the management of physical pain.


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