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Why does music make us tingle?

Updated Tuesday 9th August 2005

Simon Callow has a passion for music - his favourite piece, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, sends shivers down his spine every time he hears it! But how does a powerful piece of music make you feel happy or sad? Ever Wondered sent him out to investigate how music can manipulate our emotions.

Simon Callow Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC


Christopher Gunning Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission So what tools does the composer use to elicit emotion? Simon meets up with Christopher Gunning at his recording studio to explore musical technique…

Christopher Gunning composes extensively for films and television, some of his best-known work includes Agatha Christie's Poirot, Porterhouse Blue and Middlemarch. The Poirot theme has been described as "...conjuring up wonderful images of darkened streets, dapper criminals and no chance of evading justice".

Simon: How consciously do you manipulate emotion in your audiences?

Christopher Gunning: I start off with a completely empty mind and just react as emotionally as I can but at other times I manipulate emotion very consciously. I work a lot for film and television and what I’m called upon sometimes is to supply emotions that perhaps the actors can not express.

The musical ingredients I use to help me achieve this are tempo - the speed at which a composition is played; harmony - the simultaneous sounding of two or more tones and the relations between chords; melody; counterpoint - the art of combining melodies each of which is independent though forming part of a homogeneous texture; rhythm - the duration of tones and the stresses or accents placed upon them; and colour. A piece of music can also reflect a different emotion if played on a different instrument. These techniques are the same today as those used by the great classical composers of the past.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the language of Western techniques and styles of music from 1600-1900 have a look at course A214 Understanding Music: Elements, techniques and styles. And if you’d like to learn more about how music is composed have a look at AA302 From Composition to Performance: Musicians at work

It’s clear that composition plays an important role in creating an emotion. But what about the other side of the equation - the psychology of our reactions to music? Simon meets psychologist Professor John Sloboda at Keele University to find out more...

Professor John Sloboda Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission A fellow of the British Psychological society, Professor Sloboda is internationally known for his work on the psychology of music. His special interest is music and the emotions.

Simon: Why are my emotions aroused by music, what’s going on inside me?

Professor Sloboda : Emotions are aroused by music that raises expectations, this is done by simply granting or delaying a bar or beat in a piece of music We wouldn’t have our emotions moved by music that fulfilled our expectation. Our emotions are at their highest when we are unexpected

Bringing back a significant experience that is emotionally tinged is what psychologists know as the ‘Darling they’re playing our tune’ theory. A song that was playing at a particular event, or during an important phase of a relationship will trigger memories of that event for all of your life. Simon with Professor Sloboda Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Simon: I know a famous example of that happening - the composer Mahler, who once ran onto the streets outside his home to escape the hideous arguments of his parents, heard a brass band playing and from then on associated brass band music with intense and anguishing emotions.

Professor Sloboda : There’s something about the fact that music unfolds over time, as do emotions. When we hear the music we re-live the emotional sequence that happened the first time we heard it. That’s why music is more powerful than smell or painting, it draws you into a sequence of re-lived experience.

And if you’re keen to find out more about the links between music and emotion here are a few suggestions for you to follow up.

Listen To The Music Used In The Programme
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.23 Opus 57 "Appassionata"
Performed by Sviatoslav Richter; USSR RTV Large Symphony Orchestra
Melodiya. Copyright BMG Music 74321 294622
Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Music from the LWT Series
P. Air-Edel Associates. Copyright 1992 Virgin Records Ltd.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in Opus 58
Performed by Alfred Brendel; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink Phillips

Albinoni: Concerto in A Minor for Trumpet, Strings and Basso continuo
Allegro Track 16
Carlin Class 033

Books you can read

‘The Musical Mind:The Cognitive Psychology of Music.’ John A Sloboda. London - Oxford Press, 1985

‘Music and the emotions: The Philosophical Theories.’ Malcolm Bud. Routledge. ISBN 0415087791

Links You Can Surf
More about Christopher Gunning and his work

More about Professor John Sloboda and his work

The Royal College of Music

And also on this sit : You can join Jenny Eclair to find out why we love to laugh or sit back in the psychologist’s chair as Tim Dalgleish gives the expert’s opinion on why we have emotions.

If you think you might be interested in studying more about these subjects, find out what the Open University has to offer


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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