Music-Listener Emotional Contagion
I have long been interested in the expression of emotion in music and in the response this calls forth from the listener. One such response is a mirroring or echoing one; sad music tends to make (some) listeners feel sad and happy music to make them happy. This mirroring reaction is brought about by what I have called emotional contagion. We tend to resonate with the emotional tenor of the music, much as we catch the emotional ambience emanating from other people. Reflecting on the musical case enhances understanding of the listener's response, it also invites criticism and refinement of both the cognitive theory of the emotions offered by philosophers and the models for human-to-human emotional contagion proposed by psychologists. The contagious response to music's expressive character provides a problem for the cognitive account of the emotions that dominated the philosophical literature in the period 1970-90, according to which emotions are characterized in terms of the content of the beliefs directed at their intentional objects. The music is the perceptual object and cause of the listener's echoing sadness; it is her attentional focus, and her reaction tracks the unfolding of the music's expressiveness. However, the listener does not believe that there is anything unfortunate or regrettable about the music (or anything else) and she is not sad about or for the music. In other words, her response lacks the usual emotion-relevant beliefs and does not take the music as its intentional object. Despite this, the mirroring response is emotion-like rather than mood-like or irrational. I defend my view against two objections recently presented by Jenefer Robinson. The first insists that emotional contagion is always non-attentional. I agree that the person subject to emotional contagion is typically not aware of the causal mechanisms responsible for the transmission of affect. In many cases, however, her attention to the source emotion plays a crucial role in opening her up to the relevant triggers of emotional communication. The second denies that we are programmed to respond emotionally to music as we are to people. This is belied, however, by research on the effects of background music on shoppers. And many listeners testify to the transmission of affect when they focus on music's expressiveness. Emotional contagion from music to listener cannot follow the causal paths usually identified by psychologists; namely, unconscious facial mimicry or the detection of pheromones. What is the route? I speculate that the listener might mime the ebb and flow of tensing and relaxation apparent in the music's progress. Alternatively, perhaps music directly stimulates cortical regions linked with emotional recognitions and responses.
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