How Music Conveys Emotion

Friday, February 17, 2012


This week, Adele won a number of Grammys, including best pop solo performance for her song "Someone Like You." Inspired by this Wall Street Journal article on how music conveys emotion, we talked to McGill professor Dan Levitin about what makes music, and in particular Adele's "Someone Like You", so emotionally powerful. 

Bill Evans - Peri's Scope

Comments [21]

Bernd Willimek from Germany

Music and Emotions

The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can't convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, with which the music listener identifies. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called "lead", "leading tone" or "striving effects". If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change - but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

Further information is available via the free download of the e-book "Music and Emotion - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

Enjoy reading

Nov. 06 2013 08:37 AM
Fernando Garcia from New Jersey

Here's my 2 years and 2 months Baby Victoria singing along with Adele playing on my wife's IPhone. Even though Victoria is so young, her feel through the music it's so clear in her facial expressions. Thank you everyone for watching and sharing this video. I hope it brought smiles as it does to me and my wife every time we watch it.

Mar. 23 2012 12:20 AM

My younger son went with me when our older son could not, to take the kitty to the vet for the last time. This song was on the radio...I was in such a haze I didn't even realize what was going on around me. A couple days later, my son just looked at me. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me about the song, which was again playing on the radio. I guess it will always remind me about Joey cat.

Mar. 08 2012 10:07 AM

I discussed this story with my wife and she had a similar reaction to the commenter Vail below. Fascinating to see how personal perspective can completely alter reaction to a song.

Mar. 06 2012 05:29 AM
Keirra Levier

I think there's so much emotions in the song because Adele related her song to something that individuals go through everyday. When you can relate to music it will always get a emotion out of any person. Also her voice play a key role in the emotions that a person might feel. The high pitch in her voice sends signals through a persons mind because it so powerful. The way she adopt to the different emotions that she goes through in the songs helps the listener get into it because they wasn't expecting certain parts of the song to be that way. Us as listeners like surprises because we would get bored with songs fast if there wasn't something very distinctive about it from other songs. Its what Adele did she made you feel certain ways and some notes she hits at certain parts of the song just moved you.

Mar. 05 2012 06:09 PM
Scott from Oregon

FASCINATING story, and exceptionally well edited!! Great job as always, OTM!

Feb. 26 2012 11:48 AM

This song really plays upon personal memories.The melody alone creates a feeling of thought about past experiences. When Adele's lyrics and voice join the beautiful melody the song becomes perfect,because it deals with something that we all go though at one point, rejection. At first we are very upset and what to know why, but in the end we find peace with the situation and "wish nothing but the best" for them because that is the same thing you want in the end.

Feb. 23 2012 10:29 PM
Donte D Carter from THE BEST COLLEGE EVER.......smh

Adele is a musical genious. Her voice is beautiful, and it fits the song. When you here the song, it brings out a certain feeling. It makes you think of what may have happened to you.

Feb. 22 2012 08:57 AM
Ross from GA

I like the emotion in Adele's voice and the lyrics in her songs. She explains a clear picture to the listener... The harmony and essence of her songs relates to people's lives, that's what music is supposed to do. I really admire her talent..

Feb. 22 2012 08:50 AM
Carmen Allen from Music Appreciation

The piano melody is amazing. Combined with Adele's words, the effect is highly emotional with an impassioned vocal delivery. "Someone Like You" is quite powerful, with a very high quality recording, Adele has shown how the song truly shines and inspires goosebumps. Emotions are laid bare using the heartbreaking lyrics.

Feb. 21 2012 09:05 PM

Kaylen Skinner
I like this piece, Adele "Someone Like You" and how PH.D Dan Levition explain how and why the listeners love Adele moving melody and harmony it share with the songs with other older songs like Stevey Wonders backgrounds and rthym. Adele uses all elements of music and uses the first 4 notes and leap with newer steps on the keyboard.

Feb. 21 2012 08:50 PM
Lashonda Canty from georgia

Adele's voice is so unique, her tone in the song " Someone like you " is perfect and as the tempo speeds up and slows down allows you to feel some type of emotion.

Feb. 21 2012 08:26 PM
Destinee' Ruger

Adele voice is very smooth and beautiful. The change in her voice is amazing. She came from a smooth soft like voice tone, to a regular talking voice tone, then she gets into this high tone. I feel like Adele is very humble. Listening to this song over and over again I heard how strong she was and how she got her emotions were involved.

Feb. 21 2012 06:11 PM
Michael Theune

Excellent piece--thank you for it. I am particularly interested in the idea of what Dan Levitin calls a "Goldilocks zone" of surprise--what Brooke Gladstone translates as "the just-right amount of surprise." The power of this kind of surprise also has been recognized in fields other than music. To see the outlines of the conversation about fitting surprise in literature, especially poetry, see Cheers!

Feb. 21 2012 04:32 PM

Adele's voice is quite lovely and soulful. Does she compose music, write lyrics or both? How much of Someone Like You was written and composed by her? Does she play an instrument?

Feb. 20 2012 12:46 PM

Adele's music to me is fasinating, her song "Someone Like You" is popular and people really feel where she is coming from. Adele has made her music so on the level of so many people can relate to. Her music has lead to her success in which she has gotten numerous of Grammy's awards.

Feb. 20 2012 12:26 PM

The protagonist in Someone Like You is completely selfish and emotionally immature.
Would you set out to break up someone's marriage to satisfy your desires?
This shows no regard whatsoever for anyone's feelings but one's own.
That's the emotional response the song evokes in me.

Feb. 20 2012 10:09 AM
J M Dho from Redondo Beach, CA

Very interesting story...I've always known that music stirs a strong emotional response.

But...doesn't Adele's "Someone Like You" sound almost exactly like Brandi Carlile's "That Year," a song released in February 2010, over a year before Adele's composition?

Decide for yourself:

Feb. 19 2012 08:07 PM

This little slice of insight into how and why Adele's Someone Like You works so subtly and powerfully reminds me why I pledge money to NPR, and not to DSCC anymore. It connects the emotional, gut level with the cerebral, the subjective with the scientific. I connect with the song, the singer, the technique, and my own bio-programming. Felt myself wanting to tell Ramesh from New York to "bite it" for his "auto generate" remark. Sorry, Ramesh - that's just my monkey pounding on the welds of your cage bars. Thanks, Dan Leviton, for your clarity, and Brook Gladstone, for your joi de vivre.

Feb. 19 2012 12:56 PM
Ramesh from Newyork

I think the approach of the listener is equally important because listener filters emotions. I have overheard Adele's songs and but heard this song only after through grammy reporting. I am afraid this song did not evoke any emotion in me. Not that the song is ineffective but this is not the genre that I listen to; therefore I think this analysis is too subjective to be scientific(or to auto generate tear jerker).

Note that I am avid listener of songs, add ten+ European electro songs to my collection every month :-)

Feb. 18 2012 11:16 PM
Joyce Oxfeld from Philadelphia, PA 19136

I am really taken with Adele's handling of melodic content, while showing an intensity the gives to sense of it coming from her own experiences and emotions. There is rage, acceptance,and grief. My favorite is "Someone Like You", because it shows this intensity with a lyrical beauty.

Feb. 18 2012 06:50 PM

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