Emotions and music

How and why music affects emotions

The human body responds to music on many levels. Our brain is activated when we make music – when we sing, play or listen to it. The emotional power of music might be due to the fact that music seems to activate the same brain areas that are activated during our emotional experiences in general. Emotions are often associated with social situations and people; thus, music can remind the listener of these through personal memories or other associations. Because music is physical vibration, it is sensed in a holistic and embodied manner, not only through the ears. It is even possible that the mere presence of music can be a reminiscence of the presence of another person and therefore it can be comforting in itself.

Studies have shown that music stimulates the amygdala. The role of the amygdala is to recall and process emotional responses. By stimulating the amygdala, music evokes memories by bringing back emotions that were experienced in the past and can be reprocessed. This is the reason why our favorite songs leave a lifelong imprint on us. The stimulation of hormone secretion, on the other hand, explains the feel-good effect of music. For example, listening to your favorite music triggers the release of the pleasure hormone dopamine.

Music opens up emotions

Music affects our emotions, and, in fact, mood regulation is the most common reason for listening to music. A large number of people use music in their everyday lives to regulate their emotions: by listening to music, one may attempt to reinforce positive emotions or alleviate negative emotions. We may, partly unconsciously, choose music that boosts our energy, relieves feelings of depression or stress, or reinforces feelings of happiness and joy. Music-evoked emotions are strongly influenced by the social and personal context in which we live; a song that is personally close, evokes more emotions than an unfamiliar song.

Different types of music are used to regulate different emotional states. Music may also enhance dealing with difficult emotions such as fear, sadness, or anger. Music can be used to deal with emotions without having to express them in words. Music provides a safe environment for experiencing a wide range of emotions and a channel for expressing them. In therapy, music can also be used to help people deal with feelings that may be earlier rejected. Through music, difficult issues can be faced and dealt with from a symbolic distance. Music also serves as an alternative channel for emotional expression. At its best, music can give words for emotions for which words have not previously been found.

There is no single universally accepted definition for the word emotion. However, the rather widely accepted definition of Fridja (1988) is often used. It understands emotions as structures that guide human behavior arising as a reaction to an individually relevant event. Different emotions arise in response to different events.

Basic emotions are often understood including feelings of anger, fear, disgust, joy or pleasure, sadness and surprise. However, there are countless different emotions, which makes it impossible to name emotions unequivocally. For example, sadness can be based on a wide range of emotions, such as disappointment, longing, sadness, guilt, anger, or bitterness.

Pleasant musical experiences help to balance life and can provide relief in everyday life. By systematically increasing awareness of the impact of music on emotional well-being, people’s well-being can be supported.

The perception of emotions in music

When listening to music, the listener can perceive different emotional states in the music, but music may also elicit emotions in the listener. Perceived emotions in music may elicit emotional responses in the listener, and, on the other hand, emotional reactions elicited by the music may influence the way in which emotions are perceived in the music. However, it is important to remember that perceiving emotions and personally feeling emotions are two fundamentally independent processes (Sloboda and Juslin 2001). For example, when listening to sad music, a listener may perceive the music as sad without personally becoming sad. On the contrary, sad music can be perceived as pleasant and comforting. Music listening is often used for the purpose of regulainge emotions and typically, this is done when dealing with feelings such sadness, or with negatively emotional experiences (see Peltola, 2018).

Listening to music is a specific context of expeirencing emotions. Zentner, Grandjean and Scherer (2008) created a model with nine categories of emotions elicited by music. These categories with the related emotions are listed below.

Wonder (Happy, Amazed, Dazzled, Allured, Moved, Admiration, Ecstatic)

Transcendence (Inspired, Feeling of transcendence, Feeling of spirituality, Vibrations)

Tenderness (In love, Affectionate, Sensual, Tender, Softened-up)

Nostalgia (Sentimental, Dreamy, Nostalgic, Melancholic)

Peacefulness (Calm, Relaxed, Serene, Soothed, Meditative)

Power (Energetic, Triumphant, Fiery, Strong, Heroic)

Joyful activation (Stimulation, Joy, Livelyness, Dancing, Amused)

Tension (Tension, Nervousness, Impatience, Irritation)

Sadness (Sad, Weeping)

As native language is important when emotional experiences are described, Peltola and Eerola (2016) mapped the Finnish vocabulary for emotions that are expressed in and elicited by music. They came up with the following list of emotions.  

Tenderness (caring, freedom, infatuation, loneliness, liberation, warmth, tenderness, hope); Calmness (restfulness, calmness, relaxation, restlessness); Power (defiance, intensity, triumph); Happiness (joy, elation, sadness, happiness, love, melancholy); Anxiety (anxiety, despair, melancholy, carelessness); Rage (rage, anger, aggression, irritation, indignation, resentment); Energy (enthusiasm, energy, cheerfulness, ecstasy, frenzy); Grief (unhappiness, sorrow, gloom, depression, gloominess)

Energy (energy, cheerfulness, joy, happiness, cheerfulness, enthusiasm, vigour, enthusiasm); Sadness (melancholy, sadness, longing, wistfulness, longing); Pleasure (enjoyment, pleasure, satisfaction, admiration, pleasantness, interest); Calmness (tranquillity, calmness, serenity, relaxation, ease); Tenderness (closeness, tenderness, caring, warmth, love); Liking (compassion, understanding, liking, waiting); Power (confidence, courage, assurance, strength, relief); Ecstasy (rapture, ecstasy)

Emotional music exercises


This exercise can be done alone, or in a group, discussing the mental images and emotions that music elicits in you. The exercise is suitable for people of all ages, from children to seniors.

Set up in a comfortable and quiet space where you can listen to music.

Version 1: You can create lists of your own favorite music (instrumental or music with lyrics)

Version 2: You may listen to any composition or genre of music, but please, try also music without words. This way, your imagination will not be guided by the lyrics, but you can focus on observing the feelings, sensations, images or thoughts that the music elicits in you.

Listen to the music in as free a state as possible. Please, do not consciously guide your thoughts or feelings in any direction. Let thoughts and feelings come and go at their own pace. After the listening, explore what you observed.

The following questions can be used to explore the different effects of music and to open up each participant’s personal ways of experiencing music:

  • What kinds of thoughts, feelings and images came to your mind?
  • How does your body feel?
  • Does a particular memory, person or event come to your mind?
  • What colour does the music sound like to you?
  • In what ways do you feel different before and after listening?

Musical examples:

  • Arvo Pärt: Spiegel im spiegel (Youtube)
  • Rene Aubry: Salento (Youtube)
  • Astor Piazzolla: Oblivion (Youtube)


It may sometimes be challenging to calm down and listen to music. Many things may be going on in your mind, preventing you from settling down and opening up to the music in the moment. Focusing on “the now” can be facilitated by including in music listening another sensory modality. For example, rotating an object in the hand stimulates our sense of touch, and by doing this, we can support our sensory integration. This designates parsing of sensory information in a way that it becomes structured perceptions that can support us in learning and action.

Version 1: Listen to music, for example while holding a modelling clay in your hand. Close your eyes and let the music mould the clay. Open your eyes only after the listening session is over. After this, you can explore your sculpture that was created with this particular music. While looking at the work, you can also reflect on the thoughts and mental images it potentially evokes. These reflections can be discussed in a group or in pairs.

Version 2: Listen to the music with the participant (or a group of participants) holding a large white piece of paper in front of them, and with different colored chalks in each hand. The paper should be taped to the table so that you can freely let the music guide the chalks in your hands while keeping your eyes closed. When the music stops, open your eyes and see what kind of an image the music drew on the paper. While looking at the work, you can reflect and discuss what kinds of thoughts and mental images the picture evokes.

Musical examples:


Below you can find a list of some expressive and emotional musical works. Listen to the music. By using the list of emotions, feel and reflect what kinds of emotions the music evokes in you at any given point.

Wonder (Happy, Amazed, Dazzled, Allured, Moved, Admiration, Ecstatic)

Transcendence (Inspired, Feeling of transcendence, Feeling of spirituality, Vibrations)

Tenderness (In love, Affectionate, Sensual, Tender, Softened-up)

Nostalgia (Sentimental, Dreamy, Nostalgic, Melancholic)

Peacefulness (Calm, Relaxed, Serene, Soothed, Meditative)

Power (Energetic, Triumphant, Fiery, Strong, Heroic)

Joyful activation (Stimulation, Joy, Livelyness, Dancing, Amused)

Tension (Tension, Nervousness, Impatience, Irritation)

Sadness (Sad, Weeping)


1. Alfven, Hugo. Midsommarvaka Hugo Alfvén – Swedish Rhapsody No. 1: “Midsommarvaka” – YouTube

2. Barber, Samuel. Adagio for Strings Vienna Philharmonic – Barber: Adagio for Strings, Op.11 (Summer Night Concert 2019) – YouTube

3. Bartok, Bela. Pianosonaatti, 1. osa  Bartok – Piano Sonata 1 (Lang Lang) – YouTube

4. Bruch, Max. Kol Nidrei, Adagio op. 47. Jacqueline Du Pré – Bruch: Kol Nidrei, Op. 47 – YouTube

5. Chopin, Frederic. Pianokonsertto 1, e-molli, 2. osa, Larghetto Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11: II. Romance. Larghetto – YouTube

6. Delibes, Leo. Coppelia. Baletti, 1. näytös (Preludi) Léo Delibes Ballet Coppélia (1. partie) – YouTube

7. Dvorak, Antonin. Konsertto sellolle ja orkesterille, 2. osa Dvorak: Cello Concerto 2nd Mvt. – NSO with Daniel Müller-Schott – YouTube

8. Holst, Gustav. The Planets, op. 32. Mars. Gustav Holst – Mars – YouTube

9. Liszt, Franz. Benediction de Dieu Dans la Solitude. Arrau plays Liszt – Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, S. 173/3 (1847) – YouTube

10. Mendelssohn, Felix. Sanaton laulu, op. 19, No 1. mendelssohn op 19 no 1 – YouTube

11. Milhaud, Darius. Scaramouche, Brazileira. Scaramouche: Brazileira. Darius Milhaud. – YouTube

12. Mozart, Wolfgang, Amadeus. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,1. Osa. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – Mozart – YouTube

13. Saint-Saens, Camille. Eläinten karnevaali, Finaali  Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals – Finale – YouTube

14. Shostakovich, Dimitri. Sinfonia no 11 i, g-molli op. 103, 2. osa Shostakovich 11th Symphony 2nd Movement – YouTube

15. Strauss, Johann. Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka, op. 214 Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, op. 214 – Orchestra at Temple Square – YouTube

16. Vivaldi, Antonio. Neljä vuodenaikaa, Kevät. Vivaldi Four Seasons: Spring (La Primavera) Full, original. Youssefian & Voices of Music RV 269 4K – YouTube


Read more and references

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Fridja, N. 1988. The Laws of Emotion. American Psychologist. Vol. 43, No. 5, 349–358.

Hartikainen, I. 2016. Musiikilla torjutaan keskenmenoja ja tasataan sykettä, Yle uutiset; kulttuuri. https://yle.fi/aihe/artikkeli/2016/03/15/musiikilla-torjutaan-keskenmenoja-ja-tasataan-syketta.

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Lilja-Viherlampi, L- M. (toim.). 2011. Ihminen ja musiikki. Musiikillisen vuorovaikutuksen ulottuvuuksia. Turun Ammattikorkeakoulun Oppimateriaaleja 57. Turku: Turun Ammattikorkeakoulu.

Musiikki antaa aivoille siivet. Aivoliitto.                                            https://www.aivoliitto.fi/aivoterveys/mieli/musiikki-antaa-aivoille-siivet#b05cc667.

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Musiikin herättämiä tunteita voidaan ennustaa aivokuvista. Kaupunkimedia Aamuset. https://aamuset.fi/artikkeli/5177997.

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Cespedes-Guevara, J. 2018. Music Communicates Affects Not Basic Emotions – A Constructionist Account of Attribution of Emotional Meanings to Music. Hypothesis & Theory, 215, 1-19.

Cowen, A.S., Fang, X., Sauter, D. & Keltner, D. 2020. What music makes us feel: At least 13 dimensions organize subjective experiences associated with music across different cultures. PNAS, 4, 1924–1934.

Eerola, T. & Vuoskoski, J. K. 2011.  A comparison of the discrete and dimensional models of emotion in music. Psychology of Music, 1, 18–49.

Juslin, P.N. 2013. From everyday emotions to aesthetic emotions: Towards a unified theory of musical emotions. Physics of Life Reviews, 3, 235-266.

Juslin, P.N. & Västfjäll, D. 2008. Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 5, 559–621.

Peltola, H.-R. 2016. Kind of blue: emotions experienced in relation to nominally sad music. Väitöskirja, Jyväskylän yliopisto.  https://jyx.jyu.fi/handle/123456789/48291

Peltola, H.-R. 2018. Lauluja surullisin sävelin elämästä luopumisesta: Musiikki kuoleman ja surun merkityksellistäjänä suomalaisten suremisessa ja siihen liittyvissä rituaaleissa. Thanatos, 7, 32-67.

Peltola, H.-R. & Eerola, T. 2016. Suomalaisten käyttämät tunnesanat musiikin esittämien ja herättämien emootioiden kuvaamisessa. Suomen Musiikintutkijoiden 16. Symposium – The 16th Annual Symposium for Music Scholars in Finland, 90-96.

Peltola, H-R., & Vuoskoski, J. K. 2022. “I hate this part right here”: embodied, subjective experiences of listening to aversive music. Psychology of Music, 1, 159–174.

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Randall, W.M., Baltazar, M. & Saarikallio, S. 2023. Success in reaching affect self-regulation goals through everyday music listening. Journal of New Music Research, 1-17.

Saarikallio, S., Nimeine, S & Brattico, E. 2013. Affective reactions to musical stimuli reflect emotional use of music in everyday life. Musicae Scientiae, 1, 27–39.

Sloboda, J. A., & Juslin, P., N. 2001. Psychological Perspectives on Music and Emotion. In P.N. Juslin, J.A. Sloboda (Eds.), Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, Oxford University Press (2001), pp. 71-104.

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Scherer, K.R. 2004. Which Emotions Can be Induced by Music? What Are the Underlying

Mechanisms? And How Can We Measure Them? Journal of New Music Research, 3, 239-251.

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Claudio, R. 2017. How to Translate the Feeling into Sound. TEDx Talks.        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5yxIzs5Wug

Egermann, H. 2014. Emotional Responses to Music. TEDx Talks.                  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzFgoaZ9-VQ

Harvey, A. 2018. Your Brain on Music. TEDx Talks.                                                  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZFFwy5fwYI

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HUS: Nuorten mielenterveystalo. Mitä on musiikkiterapia                                     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vp59ePLaigQ

Minna Huotilainen: Musiikki monipuoliseen käyttöön.                                             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZfZJGOt7iw

Spielberg, R. 2014. The Healing Power of Music. TEDx Talks.                                   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LTusPwrH9E

Suomen Kuurosokeat. Musiikin vibraatio tuntokokemuksena.                                            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VZb8ndIi7g

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Musiikkia ilmastoahdistukseen. Tunteicast.                                                                             https://soundcloud.com/nyyti-ry/tunteicast-2-musiikkia-ilmastoahdistukseen .

Musiikkiterapia toipumisen tukena. Traumainformoitu Toivo.                                      https://www.podplay.com/sv-se/podcasts/traumainformoitu-toivo-1076704/episodes/musiikkiterapia-toipumisen-tukena-142159393.

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Emotional music work
Emotions and musicMuPsychMuPsych tutorial videosResearch and studies