What music makes us feel: At least 13 dimensions organize subjective experiences associated with music across different cultures

Featured Journal Content

PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States
of America
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/
[Accessed 11 Jan 2020]

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What music makes us feel: At least 13 dimensions organize subjective experiences associated with music across different cultures
Alan S. Cowen, Xia Fang, Disa Sauter, and Dacher Keltner
PNAS first published January 6, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1910704117
Significance
Do our subjective experiences when listening to music show evidence of universality? And if so, what is the nature of these experiences? With data-driven methodological and statistical approaches, we examined the feelings evoked by 2,168 music excerpts in the United States and China. We uncovered 13 distinct types of experiences that people across 2 different cultures report in listening to music of different kinds. Categories such as “awe” drive the experience of music more so than broad affective features like valence. However, emotions that scientists have long treated as discrete can be blended together. Our results provide answers to long-standing questions about the nature of the subjective experiences associated with music.
Abstract
What is the nature of the feelings evoked by music? We investigated how people represent the subjective experiences associated with Western and Chinese music and the form in which these representational processes are preserved across different cultural groups. US (n=1,591) and Chinese (n=1,258) participants listened to 2,168 music samples and reported on the specific feelings (e.g., “angry,” “dreamy”) or broad affective features (e.g., valence, arousal) that they made individuals feel. Using large-scale statistical tools, we uncovered 13 distinct types of subjective experience associated with music in both cultures. Specific feelings such as “triumphant” were better preserved across the 2 cultures than levels of valence and arousal, contrasting with theoretical claims that valence and arousal are building blocks of subjective experience. This held true even for music selected on the basis of its valence and arousal levels and for traditional Chinese music. Furthermore, the feelings associated with music were found to occupy continuous gradients, contradicting discrete emotion theories. Our findings, visualized within an interactive map (https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/∼acowen/music.html) reveal a complex, high-dimensional space of subjective experience associated with music in multiple cultures. These findings can inform inquiries ranging from the etiology of affective disorders to the neurological basis of emotion.