written with input from Loïc Quesnoy and Olivier Janin
Music can make us feel a range of emotions – from the sadness of unrequited love in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique to the fear of an imminent shark attack in Jaws. One of the most powerfully happy moments for me is driving with the windows down on a sunny day singing loudly to Justin Bieber (don’t judge). The influence of music on our emotions is strong. Today, with the increased interest in well-being and its tendency for it to elude us, using the power of music to induce well-being would be an obvious advantage. That was the goal of MIAHSS (Mathematics and Informatics Applied to the Humanities and Social Sciences) Master’s students at the University of Lille: to provoke physiological responses similar to those found during meditation through the use of music alone.
Our bodies are in constant flux between activation of our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). We’ve often heard the SNS referred to as the fight-or-flight response – a state of high tension and high energy that is not sustainable but a state in which we find ourselves all too often thanks to daily stress. The goal is to keep our PNS activated – a state in which our bodies are relaxed and our high energy functions are slowed. How can we induce PNS activation by using the media we are already presented with in our daily lives?
The researchers chose to use Affect-tag for their physiological measurements during their experiments to record the electrodermal response (EDA) and heart rate variability (HRV) of participants. Simultaneously, brainwave measurements were taken using an EEG. The hypotheses involved using both a widely accepted cinematic music emotional database as well as a database they created themselves from popular music.
Hypotheses 1 stated that pop music can be used to classify reactions into low/high tension and low/high energy just as well as a cinematic music.
Hypothesis 2 stated that music classified as low energy and low tension will induce relaxation.
If relaxation can be induced through music, we can play the right type of music while in a doctor’s waiting room or while receiving chemotherapy. We can have a more productive and less stressful workday. More people could travel on airplanes and those with autism could prepare for intense social interactions. The applications are vast.
Songs were first classified into the following conditions:
Songs for each condition were played at random for 15 seconds each in blocks of 10; after each block (i.e. each condition), participants were asked to rate their perceived level of energy, tension, and valence (like or dislike). This method allows for the validation of the two databases – to verify if they were properly classified – and to confirm that the participants could reach a state of relaxation by analyzing the physiological signals recorded with Affect-tag in the low tension, low energy condition.
Using both databases, the participants decreased their SNS activation reported by EDA measures during the low energy / low tension music. The HRV analysis of the cinematic music database confirmed that high energy / high tension music causes physiological changes in the body similar to stress. The same physiological indicators are low for low energy / low tension music, combined with an increase in PNS activation. These findings validate hypothesis 2 – that it’s possible to remove stress – or induce relaxation – through low energy / low tension music.
Determining the validity of a pop music database – Hypothesis 1 – was also confirmed, but not in the way they expected. The pop music database showed no differences in the HRV measurements between conditions. However, the perceived valence for the low tension music was always more positive than the other conditions, regardless of the database. This suggests that using Affect-tag, we can detect not only a relaxed state, but a person’s perceived positivity. A scientist’s work is never done, so testing will continue. Until then, next time you hear a song that makes you relaxed, reflect on whether you feel positive – and share with us what song helped you get there!
See below for the results of a similar experiment which uses Affect-tag to track emotional reactions while listening to an Apple Music playlist. More info in our next article!
For more information on Affect-tag, see our previous articles here.
Tang, Y.-Y., Ma, Y., Fan, Y., Feng, H., Wang, J., Feng, S., . . . Li, J., et al. (2009). Central and autonomic nervous system interaction is altered by short-term meditation. Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, 106(22), 8865–8870.
Robb, S. L. (2000). Music assisted progressive muscle relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation, music listening, and silence: A comparison of relaxation techniques. Journal of Music Therapy, 37(1), 2–21.
Vieillard, S., Peretz, I., Gosselin, N., Khalfa, S., Gagnon, L., & Bouchard, B. (2008). Happy, sad, scary and peaceful musical excerpts for research on emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 22(4), 720–752.
Appelhans, B. M. & Luecken, L. J. (2006). Heart rate variability as an index of regulated emotional responding. Review of general psychology, 10(3), 229.