The 13 Emotions You Feel When Listening To Music, According To Science

mbg Editorial Assistant By Christina Coughlin
mbg Editorial Assistant
Christina Coughlin is an editorial assistant at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Georgetown University in 2019 with a degree in psychology and music.
Woman Listening to Music on Her Headphones

Image by W2 Photography / Stocksy

Does music ever give you a certain feeling? Can the sound of a familiar song make you feel some type of way? We all know music can be emotional, but a recent study at U.C.-Berkeley has identified the key emotions associated with listening to music.

Researchers gathered over 2,000 participants from both China and the United States to compare what feelings were evoked from different music styles and how these emotions varied across cultures. Subjects listened to over 300 music samples of both Western and Chinese music, rating each song on how it made them feel. The data was then transformed into a massive interactive map.

"Imagine organizing a massively eclectic music library by emotion and capturing the combination of feelings associated with each track," says lead author Alan Cowen, a neuroscience doctoral student. "That's essentially what our study has done."

Here were the top 13 emotions that researchers discovered in subjects listening to music:

1. Amusing: These emotions were felt during the more upbeat, high-pitched songs like "Yakety Sax," typically heard during cartoon chase scenes.

2. Annoying: Songs that evoked this emotion often had unstructured and dissonant sounds, causing the listener to be uncomfortable and annoyed.

3. Anxious, tense: The music featured in this category was very suspenseful and jerky, with the sudden jumps in pace and pitch creating anxiety in listeners. 

4. Beautiful: Lots of classical music was included in this group, like Pachelbel's Canon and Beethoven's "Fur Elise." 

5. Calm, relaxing, serene: These emotions were felt from songs you would typically hear in a spa or a yoga class, with very gentle noises to relax the listener.

6. Dreamy: Songs in this category are reminiscent of lullabies, which explains why listeners felt dreamy after hearing the music samples.

7. Energizing, pump up: This category consisted of your typical dancey songs, with lots of guitar riffs. "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor was a prominent song in the category.

8. Erotic, desirous: Songs like Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" evoked these feelings, along with more slow-paced, brass-heavy instrumentals.

9. Indignant, defiant: This was one of the smaller categories out of the data but mostly consisted of heavy metal and rock songs.

10. Joyful, cheerful: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was a great example for this category, along with Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours."

11. Sad, depressing: Songs like Adele's "Hello" were featured in this category, with many of the music samples containing slow, deep piano sounds.

12. Scary, fearful: This emotion was evoked in listeners through songs that were unusually low-pitched with slow tempos. 

13. Triumphant, heroic: This category contained songs like "The Star Spangled Banner," with more grand orchestral accompaniments.

Researchers understood that in some scenarios, external factors may be affecting subjects' emotions as well. For example, the score from the shower scene in Psycho led to anxiety and fear, which may have been in part due to the context in which it is typically heard. However, this was less common with the traditional Chinese music, which yielded the same results across the board.

"Music is a universal language, but we don't always pay enough attention to what it's saying and how it's being understood," Cowen says. "We wanted to take an important first step toward solving the mystery of how music can evoke so many nuanced emotions."

Check out the fascinating interactive audio map here, and see how the music samples make you feel. Happy (or dreamy or heroic) listening!

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