Learned Associations Between Music and Emotion: A Theory?

music-notesIn this post, I’m going to tackle a topic for which I have little real knowledge, but a deep curiosity and one particular question for which I’m unable to find a satisfying answer.

I’ll begin by recounting the story of a conversation I had with a very close friend several months ago.

My friend, whom I will not name, but we can call him “John” for clarity’s sake, has two young children, one just a year old at the time of writing, the other just over three years old.  John has an expertise and a passion for music; music theory, composition, history and musical instruments (especially guitar).

While visiting John some time ago, we talked about a concept known as the devil’s note, which, though he did his best to explain it, is still somewhat over my head.  That discussion lead to the topic of musical association with emotion, and he relayed an experience he had with his oldest son when he was about two and a half years of age.  John said that he had been playing a particular record (he’s a serious phonophile) and during a particular part of a certain song, one which would elicit a feeling of sadness in pretty much anyone, his son, who was only just beginning to use his first words with any context, responded to the music by saying “sad, daddy”.

This seemed to me to be strange.  We discussed it in relation to the concept of the devil’s note, wherein he explained that certain sounds, or notes, or cadences seem to be hardwired into the human brain to elicit certain responses.  Or in other words, we somehow seem to form associations between sounds or music and emotional meaning without using cultural contexts learned through language (whether spoken or semantic).  John used the story of his son recognizing that the music in question evoked sadness at such a young age as evidence for this idea.

It seems self-evident, but we might be missing something.  I’ve thought about this at length and done a good deal of reading on the subject and have come to a conclusion, sort of…

Firstly, I acknowledge that John’s son could have developed such associations by interpreting non-verbal cultural cues from his parents, as a part of learning to talk.  This is in fact the leading hypothesis for the mechanism of forming such associations.  The fact that John is passionate about music and is a habitual music listener on a daily basis, might suggest that a sort of immersion into music is what contributed to his son forming such associations earlier than most children (the typical age for such is four years and up).

This feels hollow to me though, and I think I’ve come up with a possible explanation.

As I said, the leading theory is that non-verbal cues, such as the facial expressions and other body language of the parent and people close to the child form the basis for the child learning these associations, which in most cases are culturally universal (with some small variation).  I think though, that this misses the mark by at least a couple years.

I’ll suggest here, which is by all definitions unqualified and suppositional, that these associations are formed in the womb, or at least that the basis for such is developed in-utero.

Here’s my explanation…

We accept that music affects us emotionally.  We listen to music and it evokes various defined emotions, from sad to happy and angry even.  What is an emotion though?  Aside from the philosophical definitions of emotion, which are as abstract and subjective as can be, suffice it to say that emotions are characterised by a physiological change in our neurochemistry that affects our various biological functions.  When an emotion is evoked, by whatever mechanism or stimulus, our brains undergo a measurable change.  Various neurotransmitters flood our synapses in various amounts and combinations, causing a changing tide of neural activity that in turn causes measurable changes in our nervous system, cardiovascular system, respiratory system and even our digestive system (just to name a few).  In fact this is how researchers have measured the emotional impact of music and other stimuli in their effort to come up with answers to these questions.

Well, in thinking about this, I couldn’t help but consider the well-known fact that hormonal changes in the pregnant mother are not only perceived by the unborn child, but actually affect the development of the child.  Hormones are the mechanism by which the brain causes our various systems to change their state, so, and I think you can see where I’m going with this, why has it not been considered that the mother’s emotional response to music she hears during pregnancy could have an effect on the baby?

If this were the only element to the situation it wouldn’t mean much, but consider this…we also know that babies can and do hear sounds, voices and music while in-utero.  But of course, they have no basis whatsoever for understanding the context of the sounds or music, therefore no associations can be made until after being born, wherein non-verbal and eventually verbal cues can relay context.

Except, there is already an automatic association taking place between the music that both the mother and the child can hear via the mother’s emotional responses to such, which are perceived by the baby through her physiological or hormonal changes as they correspond to the emotions.

The child still has no cultural or social context for the association until language is introduced, but the inherent association is probably well in place long before that point. If this is true, then all learned context thereafter would simply serve to reinforce those earlier associations during the process of learning language.

I think it’s possible that this might explain why music is singular in its ability to convey emotion so accurately and with such intensity over all other forms of communication and art.  If these associations are in fact made in this way, this would make them the very first cognitive learning experience for the child’s brand new brain, which could make them the most deeply held associations throughout life.

In my reading, I’ve not come across anyone else who’s considered this idea, or at least no one who’s written about it, which perhaps suggests that I’m way off the mark.  As mentioned, I am entirely unqualified to argue for the merits of this pseudo-hypothesis.  I’m also least suited to pursue the idea any further than this post, but I welcome any insight anyone might offer regarding the validity or ridiculousness of my thinking.

Do your worst.


EDIT: I should say, the reason this subject has so vexed me, is that the suggestion that these associations are somehow hardwired or instinctual rather than learned, requires us to come up with an explanation for why that might be, for why evolution has given us this ability.  Does the ability to innately associate emotion with sounds in our environment give us some survival advantage?  Identifying sounds certainly would.  Perhaps in the context of identifying danger, we might evolve the ability to know from birth that certain sounds indicate a risk to our survival, but how would this be adapted to include all emotion?  What advantage could be inferred from associating a sound with sadness, or joy?  I’m sure, if we think long enough, we can come up with justifications, but the fact that all other contextual associations are learned through cultural assimilation suggests that they are not hardwired or innate.


4 thoughts on “Learned Associations Between Music and Emotion: A Theory?

  1. Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:


    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:


    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek


  2. That’s definitely a possibility. It presents a chicken vs. egg situation though. Is it possible that we have those patterns in our speech because we’re mimicking sounds from our environment, or is it, as you say, the other way round?

    You see then, why I’ve had this on my mind?


  3. Wow what a great topic. Could one explanation be that many of the sounds we associate with sadness, evoke this emotion because they mimic human vocalization? When we are sad we tend to speak and moan in lower tones, while we tend to make higher pitch noises when we are happy. It could bet that we are hardwired to associate emotion with tone. Maybe a harken back to our non speaking ancestors?
    When my son was about 3 I bought a box set of classical music by various artist. some who were not familiar to me. As we listened for the first time to Verdi my son turned to me and said, ‘he’s funny”. I thought this was an odd thing to say even for a three year old. I looked Verdi up and was surprised to learn that his very first opera was comical and that he often wrote opera’s based on semi- comic figures . Unless we want to talk about reincarnation, I have no idea how my son knew Verdi was funny.


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