Music, Emotions and Well-Being

By Penelope Gouk

Emotions are central to any investigations into music and medicine, as music has long been understood to alter internal states of body and mind. Music can function as an emotional tool to enhance or undermine well-being. The power of music is currently being studied by psychologists and neurologists, who are measuring music’s effects in physiological terms (see, for example, S. Koelsch, ‘Towards a neural basis of music-evoked emotions’) The problem is that, given their research methods, these studies can appear to be making universal claims as if they are outside of history. Indeed, scientists often seem forced by their methods to take both music and emotion as unproblematic categories, even though they may well be aware of the contingent nature of these phenomena. Most notably, the psychological category of ‘emotions’ with which many of these studies work has been in use since only the nineteenth century.

Can the seemingly incompatible perspectives of the scientist and the historian be reconciled?

One of my long-term goals has been to promote wider interest in the way that Western scientific theories about music and its human effects have changed over centuries, just as musical practice, and the soundworlds it is part of, have changed. I have spent over a decade investigating the relationship between music and medicine, a project which focused specifically on the early modern period (c. 1550-1750). Since 1995, I have organized collaborative conferences relating to music as a healing and therapeutic agent, with the most recent meeting taking place in June of this year thanks to generous support from the Wellcome Trust, the Society for the Social History of Medicine, the Royal Musical Association and several other funding bodies.

The premise for “Music, Emotions, and Well-being: Historical and Scientific Perspectives,” a conference which took place in June and brought together delegates from history, neurology, philosophy, psychology, music therapy, musicology, media studies and computer science, emerged eighteen months previously from brainstorming with three younger colleagues, Wiebke Thormählen, James Kennaway (both of whom have received Wellcome funding), and Jacomien Prins (funded by the University of Warwick). Each of us has explored the relationship between music and medicine in specific historical and geographical settings, so we found ourselves in a strong position to compare different ways that this relationship has been configured over half a millennium.

Three themes emerged as particularly prominent and promising. The first of these was the mind-body problem, and the ways in which music and emotion straddle the boundaries between physical and mental states. The second was the role that new and emerging technologies play in the advancement of scientific understandings of musical practice and for the promotion of well-being. And thirdly, the divergence between different disciplinary groups’ research aims and methodologies.

On the first day of the conference, Roger Scruton threw down the gauntlet by challenging cognitive scientists’ ability to tell us about the nature and meaning of music, rather than about mere auditory perception. He argued that mental reception of music is quite distinct from the physical mechanisms of hearing. Both Wiebke Thormählen and James Kennaway showed that this emphasis on music solely as a matter for the mind was also a nineteenth-century phenomenon born out of German Idealism and its belief in the absolute value of musical expression. The division between body and mind in this paradigm seems hard and fast, but in her study of a nineteenth-century Viennese asylum, Andrea Korenjak demonstrated how music’s integration into the daily life of its wealthy patients as a means of promoting well-being was based on treating the so-called Gemüth, which loosely translates as ‘mind’, ‘soul,’ or ‘disposition’, with the goal being to achieve calmness of the Gemüth.

Going further back into the past, both Jacomien Prins’s study of a sixteenth-century Italian physician Girolamo Cardano and my own paper on two eighteenth-century English medical texts (i.e., Richard Browne’s Musica Medicina of 1729 and Richard Brocklesby’s Reflections on Antient [sic] and Modern Musick, with the Application to the Cure of Diseases of 1749) revealed a willingness to accept the Platonic theory of a two-way linkage between the body and soul, and a desire to achieve balance or harmony between them in pursuit of a state of health. As a form of harmony, (the right kind of) music served both as a metaphor for well-being as well as a means of achieving and enhancing it. This connection was effected through the theorized ‘spirits’ which flow through the nerves to and from the brain, and which were thought to be responsible for sensation, perception and motor functions. The doctrine of spirits went back to Galen (2nd Century CE) but from the seventeenth century it began to be modified in the light of anatomical discoveries, notably those focusing on the brain and nervous system presented by Thomas Willis in his Cerebri anatome (1664) and by Albrecht von Haller in his ‘Dissertation on the sensible and irritable parts of animals’ of 1756. For fuller details of the spirits and their eventual demise, see C.U.M. Smith et al, The Animal Spirit Doctrine and the Origins of Neurophysiology (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Although the existence of animal spirits eventually became discredited, and replaced by the concept of nervous electricity, we can see that there is some degree of empathy between early modern theories and present day neuropsychology, which according to Maria Witeck, has the ‘aim of understanding the perceptual, cognitive, biological, neural and affective mechanisms of music listening, playing, dancing and composing’. This field is associated with the emergence of new technologies that have given scientists the tools to study the neural processes of music (e.g. including Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Magnetoencephalography). Among its (re)discoveries is the theory that rhythm in music is fundamentally related to body movement, and that without an intact motor system it cannot be successfully perceived. Daisy Fancourt highlighted the phenomenon of entrainment, where the brain can be given a stimulus that brings about a sympathetic response within the body’s key motor networks. Indeed, music can be shown to affect movement: its stimulation can excite measurable changes in heart rate, galvanic skin response and levels of adrenaline.

While bringing the properties of music into sharper focus, these instrumental theories cannot alone explain how the experience of music becomes meaningful to people, since such explanations cannot bridge the gap between neurons and bloodflow on the one hand, with thoughts, emotions and feelings on the other. This returns us to Scruton’s claim that we cannot understand music using scientific methods. However, Alexandra Lamont sidestepped this problem by concentrating on what “ordinary,” “lay” people have to say about music; specifically why they choose to listen to or engage with certain types of musical activity, such as at music festivals. Some of the answers she presented include making you feel good, that it is absorbing and engaging, and takes you beyond yourself. Renee Timmers reiterated that music is experienced in a bodily, sensorial and imaginary fashion, and that in order to further understanding into the emotional power of music we need to pay attention to its multimodal character. Most strikingly, Lamont’s subjects talked of experiencing a strong sense of communion within a large group, a phenomenon which accords well with (contested) evolutionary theories that music fosters social bonds. On top of this, music is thought to have a biological purpose in mother-to-infant communication and sexual selection, among other examples.

Tensions between theories about the nature and purpose of music could only be touched rather than satisfactorily resolved in a single day. However, what did emerge was the association between new instruments and devices and newly emerging scientific theories and therapeutic practices. For example, Stanley Finger explained how Benjamin Franklin developed the glass harmonica in 1761, and initially used it to soothe the passions in therapeutic situations, chiefly to stimulate the nerves of patients suffering from melancholy or hysteria. But by the end of the century, Franklin’s instrument was thought more likely to cause disease by over-stimulating the nerves, and it gradually fell out of favor. A more recent example of a (musical) technology being put to scientific use was presented by Cheryl Metcalf, who described a novel computer-based technique which accurately measures all the hand movements made in a piano performance. This can be used to understand the neurophysiological mechanisms that underpin musical expertise which can then be applied to philosophical questions, such as what constitutes a virtuoso performance.

Also focusing on cutting-edge technology, Marcus Pearce explained how he has developed a ‘dynamic information-theoretic model’ that ‘learns’ through musical experience to generate probabilistic predictions about forthcoming events, such as the pitch or onset time of the next note. Assuming, as Hanslick does, that expected musical events generate pleasure and unexpected events produce tension and suspense, Pearce’s experiments with real-life listeners corroborate Meyer’s hypothesis that probability systems exist in the minds of composers, performers and audiences who have internalized the conventions of particular musical styles and therefore experience corollary emotional states. This shared experience between performers and listeners (and the boundary between these two categories is porous) seems to be crucial for Gary Ansdell’s exploration of the way musical relationships are developed in improvisational music therapy, which can open up dialogue and lead to demonstrable therapeutic change.

One thing that did not emerge in discussion as clearly as we had hoped was the issue of the methodologies and research questions associated with each discipline represented at the meeting, and the divergences between them. The title of our conference deliberately played up the contrast between ‘historical’ and ‘scientific’ perspectives about music, emotions and well-being, the underlying presumption being that there is a divide between the sciences and the humanities more generally, with the sciences focusing on quantitative data and its interpretation, while the humanities show greater concern with aspects of culture and historical relativity. Yet, such a simple generalization is misleading; not least since there is on-going debate about the status and quality of new and emerging disciplines and interdisciplinary ventures as they try to establish their scientific or scholarly credentials. Indeed, most of our speakers saw the need to collaborate with colleagues who have different academic or professional backgrounds in order to understand better music’s effects on its audiences. As historians of various strains, what the organizers of the conference would like to see in the future are more conversations about the possibility of creating scientifically-based projects that will incorporate ideas of cultural conditioning into their research methods. We look forward to seeing this play out.

For more information about Music, Emotions and Well-Being 2014, the conference program and abstracts can be found here.

Penelope Gouk is a senior lecturer at Manchester University’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. She is currently writing a book on Music, Melancholy and Medicine from Renaissance to Enlightenment.

Feature image: Louis Moritz, The Music Lesson (1808)


  1. And here is James Kennaway’s recent article in The Paris Review on musical mind control:


  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Penelope Gouk has posted an article at Remedia on how understanding how music alters the “internal states of body and mind.” Gouk’s posts focuses on why its important that scientists and historians studying this phenomenon need to collaborate with one another. Anyone who has listened to music understands that it can alter your emotions. A single bar of a song or a melody can instantly take use back to some point in our lives. Gouk points out that both scientists and historians can contribute to the understanding of music impact on our emotional states.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I do agree more collaboration among these studies would be most beneficial. Awesome post.


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