Why Do Music and Art Move Us?

By: Josh Clark  | 
The concept that music is capable of evoking emotions in the listener is foregone, but exactly why this happens remains up for debate.

Humans are rather clever animals. We've managed to teach ourselves how to express ideas through written words, as well as emotions through art and music. Think about that for a minute. Through our art and music, the emotion felt by an artist may be encoded through color, shadow and harmony to be decoded and experienced by an observer or listener. That is arguably one of humanity's greatest accomplishments.

And yet, despite the apparent ease with which artists or musicians can create a work that unlocks emotions in the audience, we have no idea how it does such an amazing thing. We do know that emotions may be expressed in art — and that humans can readily recognize them. One study, conducted in Germany, found that indigenous Mafa tribespeople from Cameroon were able to reliably identify the emotions of happiness, sadness and fear in Western-style music [source: Fritz, et al]. How music and art evoke emotion is another matter entirely — one that we have yet to understand.


The renowned cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker famously called music "auditory cheesecake," indicating that music is an example of humans learning to exploit our emotions just as cheesecake is the result of our exploitation of our taste buds [source: Carroll]. Both are comparatively hollow in contrast to the underlying, elementary foundations — language and taste — that each is based on. In other words, there's no mystery to how art and music evoke emotions; they're designed to do so by assaulting the audience's basic communicative instincts.

Not everyone agrees with Pinker, however. Others in psychology and other fields have asserted that both music and art are separate from other innate forms of communication. This belief, however, doesn't explain why music and art can evoke emotion in the audience if it's not simply due to an exploitation of more basic senses.

Cognitive scientist Mark Changizi suggests that music creates emotion in the listener because we associate the sound with human movement. Since we're able to infer emotion from the expressions and movements of others and to empathize with those people through our own emotions, then if we associate music with human movement, this explains how music can evoke emotion [source: Changizi]. It's an intermediary, a stand-in for real human movement.

Our visual renderings of music being played indicate this unconscious association. If you carry out an image search online for the keywords "musical notes," points out Changizi, you'll find a lot of images of musical notes that depict them in motion. Humans associated music with movement [source: Changizi]. Music moves us because we envision movement in it. Even the terms we used to describe music — that it "moves us," or a piece of a larger composition is called a "movement" — attest to Changizi's idea.

But what about visual art? Find out on the next page.

Visual Art and Emotion

Do you find this photograph disarming or alarming? Based on the visual cues involved, we would guess the former more than the latter.

Our acquaintance with emotions is an ancient one. We've learned to use these appraisals of how our surroundings and situations match our goals, such as staying alive and preserving our health. Emotions may alert us and grab our attention, as when we feel fear and should run away. They may also assure us; we feel joy when we're safe and nourished after a meal. Understanding and reacting to our emotions is how we survive; perhaps no other sense has played a larger role in deriving emotional cues from our environment than sight.

Our ability to infer emotion from visual cues is primal. Our interpretation of these cues takes place through our emotions. If we see someone who looks cross, we may feel fear; encountering a person who looks happy may elicit a sense of calm or happiness in the observer as well. Although unproven, cognitive science suggests that visual art can evoke emotions in the viewer by exploiting emotional cues we've learned to read over the millennia [source: Gratch, et al]. A portrait of a stern-looking person of authority should elicit some sense of fear or dread in the average viewer, while a child's picture may generate happy feelings.


Certainly, studies using functional MRIs bear this out. The same regions of the brain that are involved in experiencing emotion are activated when shown aesthetically pleasing art [source: Prinz]. The use of color and symbolism in art can be recognizable to the viewer and evoke an emotion, even in abstract works. This can happen even if the conscious mind isn't aware of the reason for the sudden onset of emotion. Red, for example, can indicate anger. A series of lines in disarray, like those found in the work of painter Franz Kline, can evoke uncomfortable feelings of disorder.

The color red, lines in disarray, smiling children and furrowed eyebrows are all called cognitive antecedents. By including them in visual art, the artist may encapsulate an emotional state to be decoded and experienced by the viewer later on. The emotions elicited by a work of art aren't necessarily intentional. They're often individually and culturally specific. Philosopher William Lyons points out that a Japanese viewer of the white turkeys depicted in Monet's "Turkeys at Montgeron" may experience a sense of sadness or melancholy since white is associated with death in that culture [source: Lyons].

Perhaps an understanding of exactly how to elicit a specific emotion in the viewer is best left unsolved. To some, the best works of art are open to interpretation.

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