Music & Emotion,  Music and pleasure

Musical pleasure in the familiar

Hello Dear Reader, and a Happy Friday to you.

Well the sun is out today! We are having a cracking “Indian Summer” here is Switzerland with temperatures eking their way close to 20 Celsius. This week I have also discovered the pleasures of watching the gentlemen playing chess in the local park on the giant walk-in sets. They know their stuff. And the enjoyment of a simple glass of prosecco at the end of a long work day with a new friend. All in all, a good note on which to return to London after 6 weeks, for a weekend at home with my Oscar. I can’t wait to see him and to spend time in our flat. I don’t miss most aspects of London but it will be a real pleasure to sink into the comfort and warmth of the beloved familiar.

The topic of ‘the familiar’ has come up in my music psychology reading this week. I have come across a new paper on the impact of familiarity in our experience of emotion and pleasure when we listen to music. This is the first paper where neuroscientists have tried to disentangle how different types of knowedge influence our love of music.

Two kinds of musical knowledge

Music unfolds over time and as it does we, the listener, cannot help but generate expectations in our minds as to what will come next. This process of expectation happens without any need of conscious effort from us – in fact, you mind has been engaging in this musical game of ‘what comes next’ since you were born (and perhaps even in the womb)

JBIn order to generate expectations our minds use two different kinds of musical knowledge, as described by Jamshed Bharucha in 1987.

1) Structural knowledge: our implicit understanding of the rules of music to which we have been exposed during our lifetime

2) Veridical knowledge: our explicit awareness that one sound is followed by another. I have this knowledge for most Beatles tracks!

Veridical knowledge is not exclusive of course and has been built on initial structural knowledge that was wheeled out the first few times we heard a new track. But it is possible to look at the influences of these two types of knowledge in an experimental setting and to determine how they relate to our experience of pleasure from music listening.

Measuring emotion and pleasure in music

Copyrights by PS-PHOTO.NL
EDA NEXUS response kit. Copyrights by PS-PHOTO.NL

The present paper by Iris van den Bosch and colleagues focused on the changes in the body that are observable as a result of emotional arousal. These measures include things like heart rate and blood pressure, but such measures can be unreliable in music studies of emotion. Instead these researchers focused on electrodermal activity (EDA). EDA has been found to be reliable as a measure of emotional experience in music listening and consists of two components: skin conductance level (SCL) and skin conductance response (SCR).

Both SCL and SCR increase in response to intensely pleasurable music, and SCL shows more positive change in response to emotional music as compared to relaxing or arousing music. However, the downside of such measures of course is that they tell you nothing about emotional valence; whether the emotion is positive or negative. The present paper however, was mostly concerned with pleasurable response which can be picked up with such techniques.

The key question 

Previous studies have typically used highly familiar music to measure pleasurable, emotional responses to music. This makes sense, as you are more likely to get a response that you can measure if you know that the person enjoys what they are hearing. Musical preferences will get in your way if you try and pick novel music that you think everyone will like.

But this type of familiar music design does not allow us to know whether you NEED veridical knowledge to experience pleasure in music, or whether you can experience pleasure just from the  very nature/structure of the music – from structural knowledge.

Use novel music
Image from

According to theory we may see an emotional arousal response from novel music, as at least some musically induced emotions arise in part from simple anticipation generated by musical structure (Meyer, 1956; Huron, 2006).

Then, if you play novel music a few times you should get an increase in liking (‘mere exposure effect’) as expectations build, thanks to the development of veridical knowledge. This may, in turn, increase emotional arousal measures.


The study

In total 60 participants were recruited for the study. These participants had a preference for listening to new music and reported liking genres “Indie”, “Rock”, or “Electronic”.

The researchers created 70, 30s clips of music that were similar to the preferences of the participants but which had a very recent release date to minimise the chances of pre-exposure. None of the music contained lyrics.

On each trial participants listened to music while hooked up to an EDA response kit (as in the picture above). They used an 11 point scale (-5 to +5) to report pleasure, and a 10 point scale (0-10) to report arousal (calm to extremely excited) and familiarity.

Finally, a subgroup of 7 new participants took part in a version of the same experiment where each of 35 pieces was repeated once, as part of a second run in a different order. The participants were not told of the repeats, their awareness of this was measured by their familiarity ratings.


Study 1: First the researchers looked at responses that were unfamiliar to the participants and compared these to those that were highly familiar. 33 participants provided suitable data.

For the unfamiliar pieces there were high ratings of pleasure, no surprise since these pieces were from the participants preferred genres, but no effects of rated pleasure or arousal on SCL or SCR. In more familiar music there was an increase in SCL in line with familiarity, which was matched to significant increases in reported pleasure and arousal.

music-listening.jpgStudy 2: There was a significant impact of repeated exposure to music on SCL and SCR, but not ratings of pleasure of arousal.

The researchers looked at whether explicit familiarity had an effect by grouping the data into those trials which increased in reported familiarity level on the second run against those that did not. If a participant recognized their increasing familiarity on repeat exposure then their was an increase in their SCL, but if they gave the same familiarity rating on both runs then their was no increase in SCL. SCR increase was the same in both analyses.

What does this all mean?

Firstly, this paper shows that listening to novel music can give discernible pleasure. But that pleasure experienced in response to unfamiliar music is not reflected in our bodily response, as measured by EDA.

While repeated exposure to novel music (i.e. hearing it twice) does not increase reported pleasure or arousal, this repeated exposure does show up in our EDA. Interestingly, the most sensitive parts of our EDA response (SCL) react to repeated exposure even if we are not overtly aware that we have become more familiar with the music.


This paper suggests that robust physiological skin responses to music that reflect our emotional arousal rely most on our veridical knowledge of the music, our explicit awareness of what will come next.

This does not mean that we can’t get pleasure from new music or experience emotion based on structural knowledge alone – clearly we can – rather this paper confirms that the big body (and probably brain) hit that we associate with emotionally arousing music relies on our past exposures, explicit memory and expectations for that specific sound.

Free access paper: Iris van den Bosch, Valorie N. Salimpoor and Robert J. Zatorre (2013) Familiarity mediates the relationship between emotional arousal and pleasure during music listening. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience


  • Mark Riggle

    It is a very interesting study; however, the conclusion that: “our emotional arousal rely most on our veridical knowledge of the music” seems way too strong (and is likely incorrect). If the music segments are 30 seconds long (as in the study), then the veridical knowledge is probably important. We have all experienced pretty strong emotions on novel music; I guess we mostly listen to more than 30 second clips.

  • vicky

    Hi Mark
    A very good point, the 30s presentation is indeed not very representative of most people’s novel music listening so the conclusions should be treated with a pinch of salt. Evidence does suggest that the deepest emotional arousal is linked to veridical knowledge of music, in the very least with the style. For example, asking participants to well known and loved music (either specific songs or at least their favourite styles) is the only way that any scientist would go about testing ‘chills’.

    An interesting study would be if novel music from a style that is not familiar can ever really drive the kind of deep emotional reaction that can actually be measured in body responses. From my personal experience I can say that my explorations of World music never lead me to a deep emotional reaction of this kind on first listen as I was just too interested and involved in the task of listening. Perhaps this lack of intellectual interference in listening is where veridical knowledge has the edge with our emotions.