This incredible interactive map plays the 13 emotions music makes us feel

It doesn't matter where you're from — music is an emotional powerhouse.

  • Over 2,500 people from the U.S. and China listened to the same music and were similarly affected by it.
  • The study identifies a specific set of feelings that music can evoke, which you can experience in this incredible interactive map.
  • Further research can use these findings to figure out how music stirs emotion in us.

"Music is a universal language, but we don't always pay enough attention to what it's saying and how it's being understood," says neuroscience doctoral student Alan Cowen of UC Berkeley and the lead author of a new study aimed at identifying the feelings music conveys. He and senior author psychologist Dacher Keltner, also of UC Berkeley, surveyed thousands of American and Chinese listeners to derive a list of 13 of music's emotional languages, along with the types of music that evoke them. Their research has just been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and you can experience the 13 emotions with this incredible interactive listening map.

The purpose of the study

In online music streaming services, a variety of methods go into the creation of playlists designed to inspire specific moods and support various activities. Human curation — and instinct — is used in some cases, while in others, algorithms based on machine learning and AI determine the songs to be included.

The power of music in evoking subjective experiences is unquestionably remarkable, but little is known about how it does what it can do. As the study puts it:

"What is not well understood is how music evokes feelings in listeners. What is the taxonomic structure of the subjective experiences that music evokes? How do people represent their experiences when hearing music? To what extent are these processes consistent or variable across cultural groups?"

What Cowen and Keltner have attempted to construct is a definitive glossary for the emotional language of music, demystifying the magic employed by both human and artificial deejays. Their hope is that their findings "can inform inquiries ranging from the etiology of affective disorders to the neurological basis of emotion."

Image source: Providence Doucet/Unsplash

The study's method and results

The researchers utilized Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform to survey over 2,500 people living in the U.S. and in China as exemplars of listeners from two very different cultures. The respondents were presented, in two separate studies, with 2,168 music clips derived from YouTube videos.

Subjects were tasked with identifying the feeling prompted by each sample, the strength of its emotional impact — described as a level of "arousal" — and whether the feeling was positive or negative. "Imagine organizing a massively eclectic music library by emotion and capturing the combination of feelings associated with each track. That's essentially what our study has done," summarizes Cowen.

Though musical examples were drawn from an array of regions and musical styles — thus theoretically reducing the associative impact of cultural or geographic context — patterns emerged when the subjects' responses were subjected to statistical analysis, revealing the 13 categories of emotion music was capable of generating:

  • A: Amusing
  • B: Annoying
  • C: Anxious, tense
  • D: Beautiful
  • E: Calm, relaxing, serene
  • F: Dreamy
  • G: Energizing, pump-up
  • H: Erotic, desirous
  • I: Indignant, defiant
  • J: Joyful, cheerful
  • K: Sad, depressing
  • L: Scary, fearful
  • M: Triumphant, heroic

As part of their research, the authors have created an interactive map of the emotions they pinpointed, with each feeling denoted by the letter assigned to it in the list above. In the map, you can tap or click anywhere in the map to hear a representative music sample. This being YouTube, you'll also see the video from which it comes, as well as an opening ad or two — the respondents were not subjected to these distractions.

map of music emotions

Tap or click these images of the American and Chinese participants' results to interact with the researchers' combined map, which will open in a new tab in your browser.

Image source: UC Berkeley

Some universally got “feels”

A press release from UC Berkeley notes the emotional impacts of several well-known pieces of Western music.

  • Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" energized listeners.
  • The Clash's rousing "Rock the Casbah" got them feeling exhilarated.
  • Al Green's silky "Let's Stay Together" and George Michael's "Careless Whispers" got listeners feeling sensual.
  • Israel (Iz) Kamakawiwoʻole's "Somewhere over the Rainbow" and Ed Sheeran's "The Shape of You" evoked joy.
  • The infamous shower-scene music from Psycho produced chills.
  • The "Star-Spangled Banner"? Pride, even if you're from China.

None of this is especially surprising, but the question remains, how is music doing this? Considering the value of music in psychological, psychiatric, and physical therapy — not to mention the ongoing exploration into the workings of the brain — we want to know the answer, and this study may provide a helpful starting point for subsequent investigations.

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Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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