Scientific Musing

Dynamic Musical Communication of Core Affect

In this paper I explore the question: Is there something special about the way music communicates feelings? In short, the answer is an obvious “YES,” but what’s not so obvious is the how and why. Theories since the mid 1900’s have attempted to explain how music can stimulate varied and subtle emotional experiences. Here, I outline that music speaks to the brain in it’s own language by walking through research on emotion (or rather, affect and valence, the underpinnings of emotion), musical expectancies, and the nonlinear neurodynamics of brain synchrony (and resonance) with tones and rhythms.  

A Neurodynamic Account of Music Tonality

Science, since antiquity, has asked whether mathematical relationships among acoustic frequencies govern musical relationships. Psychophysics rejected frequency ratio theories, focusing on sensory phenomena predicted by linear analysis of sound. Cognitive psychologists have since focused on long-term exposure to the music of one’s culture and short-term sensitivity to statistical regularities; in short, we’ve been trained to “like” certain tones together because we’ve heard them that way all of our life. Today evidence is rapidly mounting that our brains respond to combinations of tones in such a way that neurons fire to musical frequencies in close ratios to their own (for example, an A 440Hz with a higher octane A 880Hz is the closest; a 1:2 ratio). This leads us to reevaluate the significance of frequency relationships in the perception of music. Here, we present a dynamical systems analysis that predicts cross-cultural invariances in music perception and cognition.

What is Special About Musical Emotion?

Is there something special about the experience of musical emotion? I would argue that affective musical experiences are special not merely because music affords aesthetic judgments, but because of the way music engages the brain. From a neurodynamic point of view, entrainment of neuronal oscillations is the fundamental dynamic mechanism that gives rise to the unity of conscious awareness. I suggest that music-synchronous responses couple directly into core neurodynamics, enabling music to directly modulate core affect. That music speaks to the brain in its own neurodynamic language, leading directly to the kinds of feelings that we associate with emotional experiences. This is what makes emotions induced by music special.

N.K. Flaig, E.W. Large / Physics of Life Reviews 10 (2013) 267–268