Susan Rogers keynote: music cognition and preferences #arpOslo2014


Susan Rogers, Berklee College of Music

Susan begins with an audio-powered journey through her life in the music industry, including her work as audio engineer for Prince (covering the Purple Rain and Sign ‘O’ the Times eras). It is interspersed with anecdotes and career nodes commentary. This is all thoroughly enjoyable and I sense the crowd would have been happy with this being the entire presentation!

But she moves us on to the theme of the presentation, which is: what are musical emotions about? Emotions are temporary and affect the goals of the perceiver in real time. Music can’t further or block goals – so how does it affect emotion?

Susan’s academic study and research is in cognitive science, and she applies this to musical experience. She talks us through a brief ‘Psych 101’ of stages of response to a stimulus, contrasting dangerous situations with musical surprise. The stages are: cognitive appraisal (“this situation is dangerous” or “those chords are beautiful”), subjective feeling (feel afraid or feel impressed/moved), physiological arousal (heart beats faster/attention is focused), expression (you scream/smile) and action tendency.

People use music to

  • change emotions
  • release emotions
  • match their current emotions
  • relieve anxiety/provide comfort
  • understand and solve problems
  • enjoy themselves

Susan suggests that songs provide life experiences for teenagers that they have not yet had first-hand. It’s a way of learning about life before you’ve had the chance to experience it. This is a theory of why music is so important to teenagers. So why do people listen to sad songs? She suggests that the song may provide a form of companionship in sad times, a feeling that someone is there with you in your darkest times.

Emotional vs non-emotional music is not about the stimulus alone – a stimulus needs a suitable (and suitably primed) receptor. Music can be associated with displays of majest, power, cleverness, sexiness etc. These become part of a cultural language and emotions can piggy-back on these cultural allusions. Hearing a song many times increases the odds of hearing it while content. [familiarity breeds content?].

She proposes six psychological mechanisms for musical induction of emotion (Juslin and Vastfjall 2008):

  • (1) brain stem reflexes
  • (2) evaluative conditioning
  • (3) emotional contagion
  • (4) visual imagery
  • (5) episodic memory
  • (6) musical expectancy

Hypothetical musical examples of how we emotionally ‘self-medicate’ are articulated with reference to this theoretical framework.

For the next section Susan asks “do certain personality traits correlate with certain music preferences”? She cites her own erstwhile naivety that she previously believed that it was possible to make a piece of music that everybody will like, and she notes that some of her own students still believe this. But it is impossible, and she presents the work of Rentfrow and Gosling 2003, who posit that individual physiology and psychological factors (such as self-esteem) may be a factor. Their work included a series of large-scale studies, mostly including groups of 1000+ music listeners, comparing personality types with music preference data, and noting the correlations. Genre preferences were compared to personality types, and there was a correlation stat for each genre and personality. There were interesting clusters. Those who like blues also liked jazz, folk and classical, but not country. Those who rated rock and metal highly gave lower ratings to religious music etc. The clusters were ‘reflective and complex’ (blues, jazz, folk); ‘intense and rebellious’ (rock and metal), upbeat and conventional (country, religious, soundtracks, pop) and ‘energetic and rhythmic’ (soul, funk, electronic and dance). These clusters were analysed in relation to psychological measures of personalities (dominance, self-esteem, conscientiousness, extraversion etc). Susan now takes us through the positive and negative correlations between genre preferences and particular clusters of behavioural and personality traits. The correlation with our own stereotypes (e.g. jazz fans are open and intellectually deep but not particularly athletic) and raises many a smile with us as an audience as our musical prejudices are confirmed!

Three pathways help us bond to music:

  • Motor path
  • Emotion path
  • Cognitive path

When we like a piece of music, she suggests, it’s because it engages us on one of these levels. If the motor path is satisfied (typically, with a tempo of 80-120 BPM), then it sometimes takes only the addition of a funky drummer to make us feel good. Melody and harmony can address the emotion path, but they need to be non-clichéd. We hear some nice inversions from Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’, as produced by Don Was.

Lyrics can achieve the cognitive path. We hear Bob Dylan’s ‘My Back Pages’ which has the simplest of harmonic beds. Finally we hear all three put together!

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