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Music and Order of Feeling

ED's picture

            Considering myself to be a fairly cognizant, observant person, I always notice when my heart goes aflutter, or sinks, or starts beating faster. There are several events that make my heart react this way: when I hope for eye contact with someone and then they meet my stare, when someone I like looks me in the eye, when I think of something scary that could happen or something very important that is impending or a deadline that is approaching, when I witness something so nice or so cute that my heart melts in approval. I understand that these reactions are due to the hormonal responses my body has to what my senses perceive in the environment around me. When my heart feels funny, it is probably due to adrenaline or endorphins.

            However, I have also noticed that whenever I attend a particularly loud concert or club, I can feel my heart reverberating in my chest to the beat of the blasting music. It is a feeling akin to the rattle one feels while standing under a fireworks show; with each boom, your heart seems to shake, and your breathing changes. These sensations physically feel a lot like the hormonal triggers make my heart feel. Today, in youth culture at least, music is often something you physically feel. As the beat pulses at up to160 beats per minute to a techno song and I feel my heart follow, I wonder what the consequences are of my heart being constantly thrown off of its natural pace. I know that my emotional reactions to my surroundings or my thoughts can trigger physical changes in my heart, but can the involuntary, physical reactions that my heart has to loud bass or to fireworks trigger emotions? If so, why? Is it purely physical, or is there a usefulness to emotions being triggered without my being aware of them?
            Music is recognized as an art; it evokes emotions. Studies have been done to prove that music can soothe people, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and alter stress hormone levels. In one study in particular (Turner), twenty-four young, healthy subjects (twelve were musicians, twelve were not) listened to a few minutes each of several types of music with random two-minute pauses in each song. The scientists conducting the experiment were not surprised to find that music with a fast tempo raised heart rate, and music with a slow tempo lowered it. The interesting observation of this experiment is that neither the genre of music nor the volunteers’ preferences in music affected these results. All that mattered was tempo, indicating that the intellectual, art-based personal opinion of and perception of music had less correlation to the heart rate results than the more physical, basic aspect of music, being tempo. It is significant to note that subjects did not have choice over how the tempos made their hearts behave.
            This experiment shows that music may affect us just as much physically (via hormone release and heart palpatation) as it does intellectually. This is a complicated issue in and of itself. To complicate things further, I would like to restate the possibility that music with very heavy bass, which is increasingly popular in the youth dance music scene, involves this phenomenon of the physicality of music affecting people on a higher level of intensity. If the results of the study I previously described are accurate, and people cannot control the way tempo affects them, what can be said of tempos you can actually feel vibrating through your heart?
Dubstep, the UK’s latest underground dance music, epitomizes what it means to literally feel music (it is perhaps no consequence that “dub” is the term used for the second beat of the heart, the first being lub). Dubstep music ranges from 136 to 146 bpm. “You should feel dubstep’s bass frequencies reverberating in your stomach and chest” writes Rahul Verma, an online reviewer of dubstep. Pinch, one of dubstep’s producers, adds that “If your chest ain’t rattling, it ain’t happening.” Dubstep music consciously tries to evoke not only feelings but physical scenarios. For example, Smith & Mighty, a Bristol-based dub music duo, coined the phrase “bass is maternal,” which is to say that the way bass knocks its audience around is comparable to being in the womb. There are other musicians that make music with a similar bass effect, though not as consciously as dubstep does (see list at end). One song of this type of music can make listeners feel as though they are surrounded by detonating bombs, while another can make them feel like they are in utero. Those are both very emotionally evocative scenarios to be in—yet the sound itself in dub music is not what evokes as it does in normal music. It is the physical scenario the beat resembles that makes people emotionally associate the music with a physical experience.
Wherever emotions are involved, hormones are involved. If it is indeed the bass of dubstep and similar musicians’ music that make people feel—first physically in their heart and then associatively/emotionally in their minds—then that would support the hypothesis that physically changing the way a heart beats (changing blood pressure and/or heart rate) can trigger hormones instead of hormones being the initiators of changes in heart behavior.
            Heartbeat is relevant to emotion, and emotion is relative to hormone levels. Hormone release requires no conscious effort: “To increase blood pressure, the heart can pump more blood by pumping more forcefully or more rapidly. …to decrease blood pressure, the heart can pump less forcefully or rapidly, arterioles and veins can widen (dilate), and fluid can be removed from the bloodstream.”
In “Cognition and Emotion,” the authors of the chapter “Heartbeat detection and the experience of emotion” explore the relationship between visceral self-perception and emotion. They hypothesize that the experience of an emotion is exaggerated when one is aware of the emotion’s physical affect on the body. William James, for example, stated that “our feelings of the…changes as they occur IS the emotion. …emotionality is positively related to physiological arousal” (qtd. in Wiens et al, p 417 - 418). An important clarification was made that cognition determined the quality of the emotion, while physicality determined the intensity of the emotion. The experiment that the authors of this study conducted ultimately indicated nothing about whether inorganic viscera could actually precipitate hormone release; they concluded that people who are more aware of their physicality (people who were more able to very accurately tap out their current heart rate) experienced emotions more intensely than those who are not as physically aware.
Though I have not been able to find an answer to my hypothesis that music with heavy bass and firework explosions change the rhythm of my heart and therefore might change the way I emotionally feel, there are a few loops in my observation and holes in my biological knowledge that may be debilitating my research. Even though I can feel the bass in dub music reverberating in my heart, perhaps the emotion I feel while listening to it is still more likely to be caused by my artistic reaction to the song. It would be interesting to conduct an experiment in which the emotions of deaf people were recorded when they “listened” to bass laden music or watched fireworks (can fireworks be scary regardless of their loud boom?). Also, I do not know much about the endocrine system—in fact, it is a complicated system that puzzles many professional researchers.

List of Applicable Music
(All searched on youtube)

Artist                             Song(s)

Daft Punk - Human After All, Around the World,
Darude – Sandstorm
Dubstep – Shank Step, Rave, Soulja Boy Remix,
Martyn – Suburbia
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Y Control
Snoop Dog – Drop It Like It’s Hot
Outkast – Vibrate, Bombs Over Baghdad
Works Cited/Read
Bakris, George L. “High Blood Pressure.” Merck April 2007. 1 Oct. 2009. <>
Lowenstein, George. “Out of Control: Visceral Influences on Behavior.” Carnegie Mellon University, 1996. 30 Sept. 2009. <>
Turner, Art. “The Heart Effect: Startling News About Music And Your Health.” Buzzle, 18 Oct. 2005. 26 Sept. 2009. <>
Verma, Rahul. “Feel the Music.” British Council, 2007. 25 Sept. 2009. <>
Wiens, Stefan; Mezzacappa, Elizabeth S.; Katkin, Edward S. “Heartbeat detection and the experience of emotions.” State University of New York, USA, 2000. 26 Sept. 2009. p. 417-423. <>


Paul Grobstein's picture

Hearts, music, emotion, hormones, and ...

Intriguing, at lots of levels.  We'll be looking more at hearbeat and what influences it in lab later this semester, so you can explore some of these issues further then.  In the meanwhile, Antonio Damasio has written several good books about the relation between emotional experience and bodily function that you might enjoy looking at; William James was certainly on to something.