Music Communicates Affects, Not Basic Emotions – A Constructionist Account of Attribution of Emotional Meanings to Music

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Abstract
Basic Emotion theory has had a tremendous influence on the affective sciences, including music psychology, where most researchers have assumed that music expressivity is constrained to a limited set of basic emotions. Several scholars suggested that these constrains to musical expressivity are explained by the existence of a shared acoustic code to the expression of emotions in music and speech prosody. In this article we advocate for a shift from this focus on basic emotions to a constructionist account. This approach proposes that the phenomenon of perception of emotions in music arises from the interaction of music’s ability to express core affects and the influence of top-down and contextual information in the listener’s mind. We start by reviewing the problems with the concept of Basic Emotions, and the inconsistent evidence that supports it. We also demonstrate how decades of developmental and cross-cultural research on music and emotional speech have failed to produce convincing findings to conclude that music expressivity is built upon a set of biologically pre-determined basic emotions. We then examine the cue-emotion consistencies between music and speech, and show how they support a parsimonious explanation, where musical expressivity is grounded on two dimensions of core affect (arousal and valence). Next, we explain how the fact that listeners reliably identify basic emotions in music does not arise from the existence of categorical boundaries in the stimuli, but from processes that facilitate categorical perception, such as using stereotyped stimuli and close-ended response formats, psychological processes of construction of mental prototypes, and contextual information. Finally, we outline our proposal of a constructionist account of perception of emotions in music, and spell out the ways in which this approach is able to make solve past conflicting findings. We conclude by providing explicit pointers about the methodological choices that will be vital to move beyond the popular Basic Emotion paradigm and start untangling the emergence of emotional experiences with music in the actual contexts in which they occur.
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Archival date: 2022-01-11
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