What genre of music do people avoid?

When Kate Winslet stands on the ship's bridge in the movie "Titanic", spreads her arms and is kissed by Leonardo DiCaprio to the tune of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On", not only romantics melt away. And when we hear the music at home without the pictures, we are still touched. But why? Is the music sad? Are we sad because the song reminds us of the film or of the people we saw it with? Do we even think of our own great love?

Everyone knows that music arouses emotions. But researchers are only gradually discovering how complex this interaction between music and mood is. Music and neuroscientists are mainly interested in what exactly happens in the brain when we listen to music - what influence it has on the current emotional state and long-term well-being, whether we unconsciously choose the music to our mood in everyday life or whether it is the other way around Music can be influenced.

At first, science began to be interested in these questions, because for psychological experiments in the laboratory it is sometimes necessary to put test subjects in a certain mood. Experience shows that Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik", for example, relaxes a surprising number of people. It is possible that this music has universal properties in terms of its emotional impact.

At least that is what the American music philosopher Leonard B. Meyer suspected. In 1956, in his book "Emotion and Meaning in Music", he claimed that music evokes emotions through the way it is structured: Music satisfies us through a cleverly composed interplay of tension build-up and dissolution.

In everyday life, grief is a negative feeling that we avoid - not in music

"When listening to music, our brain constantly tries to predict how the music will continue," confirms Lutz Jäncke, neuroscientist at the University of Zurich. "How does the melody develop? Does the music get louder or quieter? How does the rhythm change? As soon as something comes that we do not expect, for example a change in rhythm, we are surprised. A tension arises that we expect it to be is later dissolved, for example when the music picks up the previous rhythm. "

The effect is comparable to a detective novel in which an author installs a so-called cliffhanger: for example, an investigator encounters an armed murderer. But instead of depicting a duel, the author changes the scene to increase the tension. We read on quickly because we hope to see the answer. With this expectation, both reading and listening to music increase the release of dopamine, and our palms produce sweat. The music psychologist Stefan Koelsch from the Norwegian University of Bergen was able to prove in experiments that our body shows these symptoms when listening to music even if we are not consciously aware of a change in a piece.

The interplay of tension build-up and dissolution explains to some extent the general satisfaction that music gives us, but not the nuances in the emotions that we feel when listening. Because composers use other tricks to express different moods: To represent joy, for example, composers add large intervals to the pieces. They jump back and forth between high and low notes, often changing tempo and instruments. Sad music is leisurely: the tones change in small steps, the music is quiet and uniform. Fear comes in dissonant tones. It sounds loud and piercing, sometimes shrill. An extreme example of this is the music that sounds in Alfred Hitchcock's film "Psycho" when the murderer pushes the shower curtain aside and stabs his victim with the knife. Such shrill tones trigger the same reactions in everyone, even without pictures. This is probably due to the fact that the tones are reminiscent of screams and danger.

In everyday life we ​​like to let composers put us in a rather pleasant mood. "Many studies have shown that mood regulation is even one of the most important reasons for listening to music," says Marcel Zentner, a psychologist at the University of Innsbruck. "People tend to choose music that is congruent with their emotional state. They rarely try to change a sad mood with happy pieces." That would even be counterproductive, because sad music rather than happy music diminishes sadness.

However, that doesn't mean that we only listen to sad music when we are feeling bad. In an online survey in 2014, Stefan Koelsch and Liila Taruffi found that half of the total of 772 respondents listen to sad music when, for example, they go through a breakup or feel lonely. But more than a third of those surveyed said that they also listen to this music when they are in a good mood. According to the researchers, this may be due to the fact that sad music triggers a number of complex associations, some of which are positive: nostalgia, calm, tenderness, transcendence and amazement.

"Sad music is not aversive, but pleasant," says Marcel Zentner. "It conveys a kind of non-everyday sadness; an aesthetic sadness." In everyday life, grief is a negative feeling that we avoid - not in music. Surprisingly, 76 percent of respondents said that the most important emotion they experience with sad music is nostalgia, not grief. They use music to remember precious moments in the past. With this goal, less than one percent of respondents listen to happy songs.

This connection between music and memory can be demonstrated in the brain. "I examined this on myself," says Lutz Jäncke. "For example, when I listen to Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons Autumn', my brain is active in many areas, for example in those responsible for hearing, sight, motor skills and smell. I am not surprised because I am listening to music I remember my time in Boston, where I experienced the Indian Summer - the autumn time with its red-orange and golden-yellow colors. I can even smell the leaves while listening to the music. "

Music, in particular, recalls the time of growing up. Reinhard Copyz from the Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media examined this effect in a 2015 study. In an experiment, he played a random selection of number one hits from the period from 1930 to 2010 to 48 subjects with an average age of 67 years. Copyz then asked: "What do you remember about these pieces of music?" Participants should write down personal memories and factual information about the titles. The detailed knowledge of the hits in the growing up phase was strongest and decreased with age.

"We have the most important emotional impulses in life in our youth," says Jäncke. "That is why we have a strong connection to the music we heard as young people. Many people's taste in music hardly changes later on. They are no longer open to new genres because they cannot access inner images and feelings. Young people, on the other hand, consciously listen to new music to set themselves apart from others. "

30 million

Songs and other compositions are offered solely by the Spotify streaming service, one of the largest music platforms on the Internet. That shows how important music is to people. And that since prehistoric times: The oldest known musical instruments - bone flutes - were made in the Swabian Alb as early as 35,000 years ago.

Jäncke now wants to research whether Vivaldi's music triggers memories of autumn in people who have never heard it. He suspects this is not the case. "Some studies suggest that there is some kind of semantics in music. For example, in the music for 'Peter and the Wolf' we associate certain sounds with animals, with ideas of warmth and summer or winter and snow. But I suspect that we must be familiar with such associations of sound and meaning from childhood. They do not come from nowhere. " Competitive athletes are driven by a similar question: does the music itself contain something that enhances performance, or is it an indirect effect? Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois played test subjects 31 pieces from different genres. They then used psychological tests to determine whether the listeners showed more self-confidence and believed that they were in better control of a situation. Apparently, a strong bass in the music actually boosted self-confidence. According to the researchers, many people associated a bass or a deep voice with dominance, and so people tried to imitate that dominance. Music that associates listeners with victory and success, such as "We are the Champions" by, has a similar effect Queen.

The only thing that matters is the mood evoked by the music. "This also applies to physical exertion that we perceive to be less intense when we listen to our favorite music," says music psychologist Gunter Kreutz from the Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg. "So music promotes motivation and only indirectly improves performance; there is no causal link between music and, for example, the oxygen turnover. People are simply more productive because they are doing well."

The French psychologist Nicolas Guéguen from the University of Bretagne-Sud in Lorient was even able to prove in 2010 that we are more likely to respond to flirts if we have recently heard a love song. And another study suggests that when we hear French music in the supermarket, we are more likely to buy French wine than German beer. Both attempts make it clear that music can subconsciously reinforce a mood.

There is no universal formula for music that has the same effect on everyone

But the experiments are not proof that the same music evokes the same emotions in all people. In 2012, a team led by Xiao Hu from the University of Hong Kong compared the emotional impact of music on American and Chinese listeners. You should assign western pop music to a group of adjectives. Chinese listeners are far more likely to describe the music as passionate and engaging than American listeners - apparently because Chinese culture is more introverted and Chinese generally perceive Western music as extroverted. Chinese listeners also described songs that Americans found sad rather than calm and peaceful.

Another comparative study shows that the West African Mafa people, who are completely unfamiliar with Western music, perceive it to be just as happy, sad and fearful as American listeners. The researchers therefore assume that at least basic sounds such as consonance and dissonance are perceived the same all over the world.

Meanwhile, Suvi Saarikallio from Aalto University in Finland investigated gender differences in music perception and found that feelings of fear in men are more likely to increase when they listen to sad or aggressive music, while in women the same feelings decrease. In their brain, the prefrontal cortex, in which feelings are processed and negative moods are suppressed, is activated when sad music is playing. In men, this area is less busy.

The cultural and gender differences in dealing with music and emotions are relevant when it comes to using music therapeutically to regulate mood. Lutz Jäncke's team is currently testing the effect of music in treating depression. Initial experiments indicate that patients who listen to their favorite music for 30 minutes a day feel even better hours afterwards. But this research is only just beginning.

One thing is certain: there cannot be a global formula for music that has the same effect on everyone. In this respect, the French writer Victor Hugo put the difficulties in trying to understand the effect of music in a nutshell as early as the 19th century: "Music expresses what cannot be said and what is impossible to remain silent about."