Researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University are using music (and audio engineering) to treat pain and depression – by mapping out emotional terrain in pop songs:
Each volunteer listens to pieces of previously unheard contemporary popular music* and assigns each one a position on a graph. One axis measures the type of feeling (positivity or negativity) that the piece communicates; the other measures the intensity or activity level of the music. The research team then assess the audio characteristics that the pieces falling into each part of the graph have in common.
“We look at parameters such as rhythm patterns, melodic range, musical intervals, length of phrases, musical pitch and so on,” says Dr [Don] Knox. “For example, music falling into a positive category might have a regular rhythm, bright timbre and a fairly steady pitch contour over time. If tempo and loudness increase, for instance, this would place the piece in a more ‘exuberant’ or ‘excited’ region of the graph.”
The team are now about to start their assessment of the impact of lyrics, and then hope to focus on how individuals use and experience music at a subjective level.
The ultimate aim is to develop a comprehensive mathematical model that explains music’s ability to communicate different emotions. This could make it possible, within a few years, to develop computer programs which identify pieces of music that will influence a individual’s mood (e.g. to motivate them when exercising or when revising for exams), meet their emotional needs and help them cope better with physical pain.
The * leads to a note about how most previous music studies have focused on classical music – for no good reason. These guys have taken songs that haven’t been released, so there’s no associations with existing bands or scenes. I really don’t know if that’s possible, but I’m glad they’re trying what they’re trying.