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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00215

Music communicates affects, not basic emotions – A constructionist account of attribution of emotional meanings to music

  • 1Departamento de Estudios Psicológicos, ICESI University, Colombia
  • 2Department of Music, Durham University, United Kingdom

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.

Keywords: Music, emotion, Expression, Basic emotions, Categories, Dimensions, psychological constructionism, expression of emotion in speech and music, musical expressivity, perception of emotions in music

Received: 31 Oct 2017; Accepted: 08 Feb 2018.

Edited by:

Massimo Marraffa, Università degli Studi Roma Tre, Italy

Reviewed by:

Edward W. Large, University of Connecticut, United States
Marta Benenti, Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale, Italy  

Copyright: © 2018 Cespedes-Guevara and Eerola. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Julian Cespedes-Guevara, ICESI University, Departamento de Estudios Psicológicos, Calle 18 No. 122-135, Cali, Valle del Cauca, Colombia,