How music arouses emotions

An afternoon with Massimo Priviero

Of all the arts, music is probably the one that excites us the most, and that is the main reason why we like to listen to it.

We can define emotion as a mental state induced by internal or external stimuli that is born in an instinctive way, not rational and independent from the will of those who try it.

One of its characteristics is to be transmitted from the auditory system to the limbic system, where emotional responses arise, without mediation.

We have already talked about the 13 emotions aroused by music and we can now see how music creates these emotions.

For what is set out in this article we will make particular reference to the studies carried out in this field and to a musical event organized last February 8.

How the structure of music determines emotions

Different aspects of music lead us to experience an emotion. Starting from the structure of the piece, the variation of its intensity can change our perception and the level of our emotion, for example, being initially calm, then joyful and finally melancholy.

Without going into an analysis of the emotional effect produced by notes, which would be difficult for those who are not experts in this field, we can limit ourselves to consider how in general the growing notes are cheerful and the waning ones are perceived as sad. One explanation is that the waning sounds are typically emitted by those who suffer and complain and for this reason, are instinctively cataloged as sad, while expressions of joy typically have a growing trend and this is therefore perceived as cheerful.

Among the structural factors that play a role in the expression of emotion in music we find time. A fast time, for example, varies considerably the size of the arousal, that is, the response of the nervous system to a stimulus, which gives place to excitement and to a sharpening of the attentive-cognitive system.

Even the harmonic and rhythmic complexity of a piece has an important role, too dissonant music (as it happens in contemporary music) often has a negative and unpleasant connotation.

The music develops on a temporal plane (we will talk about expectations shortly), the moment we listen we do not know what will happen a moment later and this generates expectation.

The expectation is strongly linked to the emotion and is the result of an unconscious elaboration, if not it would be difficult to explain why we continue to feel emotion even in the repeated listening of the same song. An unconscious elaboration of the piece, on the contrary, proceeds to each listening to recalculate the expectations so that their confirmation or not gives rise to the emotional aspect of the piece.

The expectation

In the enjoyment of a song the listener unconsciously has expectations about how that piece will develop. In general, if its structure has the effect of confirming our expectation, a positive emotion will occur, otherwise, a sense of negativity and surprise will prevail.

Generally, the songs we prefer in their sound course are a middle way between the confirmation of our expectations and the surprise effect. They have therefore defined songs of “medium complexity,” with a moderate uncertainty, where surprises alternate with a foreseeable development.

But it is not always so simple: the level of certainty or less that we achieve through listening also has its weight. It seems that if we feel almost absolutely sure of what the note or the agreement will be, a surprise will please us, on the contrary, if we feel uncertain about how the song will develop, we will take more pleasure in not being surprised by the next deal.

It should not be forgotten that the music is produced with a purpose. The composer wants to transmit something to us, so its structure, the context, the words that accompany it also aim to manipulate our expectations contributing to create a specific emotion. As with words, where frequency, intensity, and distribution of sounds transmit a certain type of message, the same elements also act in music.

Who speaks with anger assumes a fast rhythm, a timbre, and a high intensity. Equal characteristics give a piece of music the power to arouse an emotion of anger and so on.

The event


The event we are talking about took place in the futuristic structure of Oxy.gen in Bresso (Milan, Italy), which hosts cultural and educational activities. With us was Massimo Priviero, who has made available his thirty-year experience as a musician, singer, and writer.

To involve you in what has happened, we invite you to follow us in this story.

Imagine that you find yourself in front of a small lake, before you a wooden bridge, leading to an air bubble floating on the water. You walk it all the way. You enter. The circular structure welcomes you, you are in an abstract space, everything else has remained on the shore.

With you are other people, many people, but there is silence, the light filters from the bellows curtains that cover the windows. In the distance, you can hear the sounds of ducks and the shadows of birds in flight are reflected inside.

Music begins. There is a dominant theme in what you hear: a positive message of strength, confidence, hope. The ability, the courage needed to overcome events, whether difficult or painful, the will to always rise up and to fly higher.

Some extracts

The audience can be divided equally into people who already know very well the songs and have participated in other live performances, and people who listen to this music for the first time.

And now read these extracts and the meaning that this music tried to transmit:

I thank my God in Heaven,
for my impregnable soul
I thank every true man,
be my unassailable companion
I thank the bombs that fall around me every day
that hurt me but never kill me
I thank life that is heaven or hell,
It’s joy and mud, but it’s all you got
And for every dawn that comes and every night that goes
For the smile and the crying that fly away
I thank the warrior spirit of my life

(“Orgoglio”, Massimo Priviero)

This piece is written in a moment of strong fragility. fragility not linked to a specific fact but simply the daughter of a way of being that lives of ups and downs. A form of inner therapy, as if it were a necessity to tell oneself that it makes sense to have been and to be what one is.

It’s often surprising how in a difficult time you can write words that instead take the form of existential force. Repeating the word THANK YOU at the beginning of each verse is a wish to thank you for being alive thinking that it is worth defending your own way of being in the world.

To sit at a table and write something like this gives birth to a sort of happiness that gradually takes shape and is shared. At this point everyone can take what he believes, everyone can find inside a sentence that touches him more, everyone can hear what he wants.

It is as if you raise your eyes to the sky and you are told “on this journey that is my life, so many times when I fall to the ground, I sometimes see heaven and I am happy that it happens”

And again:

Where are you, my sweet angel
Where you are, where you are I never see you
I am your voice that will scream
I’m your hand that can’t shake
I’m your strength you’ll find
I am the bells that rang yesterday
I’m your life you didn’t sell
I’m the new dawn you’ll find
It is I together with Christ come to save
But if a man tomorrow asks you
If a man tomorrow asks you
You tell him it’s the wings, just the wings of his freedom

(“Ali di Libertà”, di Massimo Priviero)

The images that are this piece are often the defense of those who have little else to whom to cling that they are not just these wings. There is nothing that matters more in the life of a man who is free and there is no reason in the world why you can do without it.

We try to give a face to what gives us the strength to go on, the reasons why it’s worth living, or whatever we think needs to be answered.

Maybe the Wings of Freedom are just what we need to ask ourselves these questions that have no answer. That we stubbornly go on asking ourselves. And, perhaps, in this need we come to the need to close our eyes and get carried away with sounds and words. And maybe that’s when we stop asking questions we can’t answer.



Listening to a record is certainly a source of emotion but going to a concert is certainly much more so. Listening to live music is undoubtedly considered the best way to experience emotional involvement.

While we have so far spoken of emotions as the intrinsic quality of music, an important part of the emotion in music is triggered by personal experience.

On the perceptual level there is a strong similarity on the way in which everyone perceives music, more difficult to assert the same thing on the emotional level because factors such as personal history, social and cultural context, and state of mind come into play.

To return to our event, the most used definition at the end of the show to describe what lived was “a strong emotion”, followed by “positivity” and “force”.

Some songs have aroused emotions because connected to a memory, but it has been confirmed that even songs heard for the first time were able to excite and, above all, to evoke in each the same emotions, regardless of age, sex, culture, and personal experiences.

During live listening, there is a physical and emotional exchange between the performer, the individual listener and the audience as a whole.

Moreover, as already mentioned, in those who produce music (the artist who sings or plays) there is the purpose and the will to transmit with those sounds certain feelings but he himself is influenced by the emotional response that comes to him from his audience.

You listen or play music with your own energy and with your own state of mind of that moment but also the combination of attention and participation of the audience influences both the production of the sounds and the effect they produce on the individual listener.

Inevitably it happens that if we are tense, angry, worried, our level of attention drops and listening will have less chance of transmitting emotions. On the contrary, if we are relaxed, we will be more open to an emotional exchange with our surroundings.

(thanks to the Association Il Riccio, the Municipality of Bresso and the Zoé-Zambon Foundation that made the realization of this event possible)


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