This post is in the Emotions category

An important aspect of the emotional life of any individual is their response to external stimuli – the people around them, real situations they find themselves in, and the things they see and hear that are not real or literal, such as images, performances and of course, music.  Alfred Pike describes the emotional experience of music as “perceptual-emotional Gestalt” (1972). The emotive elements of the music cause the listener to become “vicariously involved in their qualitative movement in terms of spontaneous and transient affective states” (p. 265).  His use of the term Gestalt prompted a re-visit of the issue of global vs local  processing in relation to the perception and response to music. The perception of detail and immediacy coupled with a tendency towards alexithymia suggests that becoming “vicariously involved” and “experiencing spontaneous and transient affective states” may not occur to the same extent in individuals with strong autistic traits or may not be recognised as such.

In his fascinating book An Anthropologist on Mars Oliver Sacks  (1995) relates an encounter with Temple Grandin, an autistic who has become a highly respected scientist.  She indicates that while she finds music “pretty, recognises the cleverness of the composer, and can be fascinated by its structure, she is not ‘moved’ by it” (p. 286).  Levitin (2006 p. 259) also reports that while many people with ASD play music and may reach high levels of technical proficiency, most do not report being moved by music, even when others are affected by their playing and apparently recognise a transmission of emotion. Sacks refers to the evidence that indicates that we have very different parts of the brain that are involved in the cognitive and emotional perception of music.  Individuals, through congenital or acquired means, may be “musical” but lack emotional response, or be moved, yet unable to comprehend the structural and harmonic nature.  He also notes several cases where emotional dissociation is restricted to music, i.e. the individuals involved react emotionally to everything except music, and may become indifferent on a temporary or permanent basis. Yet Sacks also reports numerous experiences with deeply brain injured and mentally ill individuals who react to nothing but music  (Sacks, 2008). It should be noted that many “typical” people do not report being moved by music – it is not an autistic phenomena.  In addition, recent brain imaging research  (Molnar-Szakacs et al., 2009) indicates that the brain of typical versus autistic individuals activates in much the same way when listening to music, suggesting that the perception of music is unimpaired, but the ability to recognise and report that perception may be.

While Levitin and Sacks focus primarily on “ordinary” and “damaged” musical brains with some comparative reference to autism, Rory Allen and his team at the University of London have specifically examined the reported experiences of music in autistic persons.  Analysis of self-reported ASD responses and existing literature indicated that neurotypical individuals tended to describe their responses along two axes, emotion (happy/sad) and arousal (calm/excitement), whereas ASD individuals relied much more heavily on the latter axis, rarely employing language that defined the emotive content of the arousal  (Allen, Hill & Heaton, 2009). For example, an NT (neurotypical) listener may describe their response to a piece as “calm in a happy way”, but this type of report was very rare in ASD individuals, except where a social element, eg a memory association was reported. This finding relates to Sloboda’s descriptions of  episodic association with music i.e. evoking memory of an emotive episode  (2005 p. 335).  He cites the example of a shared experience – “honey, they’re playing our song” or a non-real dramatic episode such as a film or theatre piece with remembered experience as being a much stronger trigger of emotional response.

Stan Bennett discusses emotional engagement with the musiking process in a slightly different context in his study of creative process among composers who use pen and paper writing methods  (Bennett, 1976, p. 10).  His interviewees indicate a common emotional state of “tranquility-security-relaxation” during their writing process, and support Hindemith’s assertions that composers are representing their memories of experience rather than reflecting their immediate experience of emotional state  (Hindemith, 1952, pp. 41-51). Bennett also cites Leonard Bernstein in his study, relating a state of semi trance that is blissful in nature, but not directly corresponding to the emotive content of the music being created. It has been noted in another recent study that individuals with high functioning ASDs reported a “greater reliance on internally focused (arousal) rather than externally focused (emotive) language”  (Allen et al., 2009, p. 326), when compared with studies of typically developing individuals . This study also indicated that the individuals sampled did utilise music in a variety of ways, although not all (75%) of them reported music as a “change agent”   (Sloboda, 2005, p. 215) and a significant proportion (56%) reported a principally cognitive enjoyment. Sloboda asserts that music is a pathway to alternative perspectives, self discovery, release of bottled up emotion, triggers of memory, that grant access to feelings already present or previously experienced  (p. 204).  Therefore, if the individual has a paucity or dissociated experience of emotion, this may be less likely to occur.

For myself, music on its own rarely moves me or changes my mood and I do not use music for this purpose.  I am aroused by it, I love music for its intrinsic beauty, its instantaneous play of sound, but I can not say that any particular music can cause me to experience happiness or sadness or calm as a vicarious force.  I certainly will get a “chill” every now and then from a performance, but I don’t recognise that as an emotional experience as much as a curious and inexplicably physical one.  The experience of chills is a good indicator of peak arousal state that can be measured through the monitoring of dopamine release  (Salimpoor, Benovoy, Larcher, Dagher, & Zatorre, 2011, p. 258), so the operative word here is recognise. This experience, (or lack of it) is an expression of alexithymia in a musical context. By contrast, I am certainly affected by the combination of music with image such as in a film, to much a higher degree. I get the heightening effect that “mood congruent”  (Boltz, 2004) film music generates,  and I feel the “small flame put  under the screen”  (Copeland quoted in Larsen, 2007, p. 184).   There have indeed been instances where a particular combination of image and music have caused an intense physical reaction.  My first adult experience of what I now recognise as a panic or anxiety attack occurred while watching a movie, Mo Better Blues (Lee, 1990) at a moment of violence paired with soaring jazz trumpet.

These studies cited above begin to partly describe a discrepancy between my own passive and active musiking.  In the engagement of cognitive forces over a longer period while composing, perhaps the emotive forces are awakened.  Bernstein’s bliss-state is present, but in addition there is a flux of emotion that is directly related to the intent or purpose of the music.  I feel anger when writing music for the battle, joy when writing about love, despair when the piece is of sorrow and fearful anxiety when the music portrays horror.  These are some of the strongest emotions I experience at any time, not just in musical contexts.  I move through and above these feelings as the process evolves.

Huron’s  model of music perception (Huron, 2006) raises a question regarding the arousal invoked by anticipatory events during the composition process.  Specifically, how is this arousal sustained during repeated mental, physical and aural expression of the music during that compositional process.  It would be interesting to examine arousal states in composers during these times, and compare with musicians during practice versus performance.

((Interestingly, in his search for an identifiable “composer archetype” Anthony Kemp describes composers as introverted, pathemic – emotionally immature – and with a “lower moral upbringing”.  Apparently we are characterised by “self-centredness and a desire for personal mastery” (Kemp, 1981, pp. 69-73).))

Induced emotion from music is thought to be mediated by the number and intensity of semiotic and mnemonic emotional cues or signifiers present in the composition and performance at a perceptual level (Baumgartner, Esslen, & Jäncke, 2006; Bharucha, Curtis, & Paroo, 2006; Grewe, Nagel, Kopiez, & Altenmüller, 2005; Pallesen et al., 2005; Pike, 1972; Schneck, Berger, & Rowland, 2006; Suda, Morimoto, Obata, Koizumi, & Maki, 2008; Zentner, Grandjean, & Scherer, 2008). Such cues include tempo, mode, dissonance, mimetic elements, direction of melody, phrasing, rubato and intonation (Huron, 2006, p. 185).  The use of such cues are a part of the musical language skills one develops as a composer or performer. Hunter et al (Hunter, Schellenberg, & Schimmack, 2010) found that the depth of induced emotion is strongly mediated by cognitive perception of these emotive cues in the music and that such depth of emotional response (as opposed to perceived meaning) can be manipulated by varying them. This included the ability to induce “mixed feelings” by playing fast music in a minor modality, or Happy Birthday with heavy vibrato and rubato.  This induction appears very similar to the function of cognitive empathy (Davis, 1980) feeding the ability to take another’s perspective. It is dependant on perceiving and recognising such cues (either consciously or sub-consiously) as being representative of specific emotions. Perhaps this is the basis for what Funahashi (1985) refers to as “musical empathy” or Leman calls “embodied listening (2008). Interestingly, the terms “musical empathy”, “Empathy with music” and “empathy for music” are quite common in non-academic literature, reviews of performances and biographies of musicians, but surprisingly infrequent in academic literature, despite the exhortations from teachers to develop it.

One possible explanation for my own lack of “musical empathy” may be that, as in social interactions, I don’t perceive such cues as easily as most people, so the emotion is not recognised. In addition, when I listen to music, my focus tends to be on the detailed sound because that is what is most fascinating.  Perhaps if this were not the case, I’d be a pen and paper composer and prefer Mozart to Reich. On the other hand, it may be the lack of emotional engagement that allows the focus on sonics.

Conversely when I am composing, particularly for drama or where lyrics supply the emotional narrative, I begin with an emotional construct, created through intellectual understanding of the intention and a conscious process of emotionalising.  I know what to feel, so I do!  I can construct an emotional, empathic response from scratch, and pass that into the music through the languages of composition and production.  I create the virtual heart, and employ the language to express it.

Beyond my self-understanding, the implications of these findings extend into music therapy and the understanding of the nature of emotion generation, perception and empathic response in both musical and non-musical situations.

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