Robbie Christie

DMSP Submission 1 – Music and Emotion

 The purpose of this year’s Brain Drain DMSP project is to use electroencephalography (EEG) readings to monitor an individual’s emotional reaction to stimuli – stimuli in this case being sound. An EEG headset will measure brain activity, which is decoded into numerical values between 0-1 for four separate moods; engagement, meditation, excitement, frustration. These ‘mood’ readings are based on the strength of the alpha, beta, theta, and delta brainwaves. These numerical values will then be used to control visual output, hopefully providing insight towards the individual’s emotional response to sound. The sound will be ‘composed’ in real-time, with a level of user-control being provided to the audience. The conclusion of the project will be an interactive installation combining each of these elements, with the aim to create an immersive and enjoyable, yet informative, experience.

This report will discuss the main theoretical concepts underlying the project, with a focus on sound and its intended emotional effect on the user. Decision-making regarding sound will be supported by studies in the field linking music/sound and emotional/cognitive response. Installation setting and audience participation will also be discussed, considering a way to include an element of user-control that allows for freedom and enjoyment for the audience, but ensures an interesting and effective installation.

“All musical emotions occur in a complex interplay between the listener, the music, and the situation.” (I. Deliège, pg 118)

Before analysis of sound and how it may be used to evoke emotion, consider the point made in the above quote. Emotional response to music or sound cannot simply be thought of as a direct result of a specific timbre, phrase, or sequence of notes, but that of a range of factors. Therefore, to reach the goal of making the stimulus effective in this project, looking beyond the sound itself is essential. Although sound is the main stimulus for the performer, the location and audience participation may play as vital a role.

The size and shape of the performance space will determine how the sound will travel and reverberate. Size and shape, along with building materials, determine dampening/attenuation of specific frequencies within the audible range due to standing waves formed between hard, parallel surfaces, and absorption of softer surfaces. Audience participation may interfere with sound or distract the performer, preventing meditation and engagement or evoking frustration. “A significant proportion (approximately 40%) of musical emotion episodes seem to occur when the listener is alone” (I. Deliège, pg 119), perhaps suggesting that separating the audience and the performer may be the best way to obtain strong emotional response in the installation. Deliège also suggests “musical emotion episodes are most prevalent in the evening” and “more frequent during weekend days than weekdays”, highlighting time as another important factor in perception and emotional response to sound.

Undeniably, we must tread carefully when designing sound with the intention of inducing a reaction in a setting that has largely been undefined. This said, there are a number of sonic features that we can look to emphasize in order to lead the performer towards a certain mind state.

“Changes in basic acoustics attributes such as loudness, tempo, and pitch height can give rise to dramatic changes in arousal” (W.F.Thompson, pg 124)

Thompson’s observation, along with Juslin and Västfjäll’s BRECVEM model, would suggest that surprise or a sudden change in sonic attributes is a valuable tool in trying to produce abrupt mood changes in the user, allowing for a more dramatic, or less stagnant, visual output in the case of this project. Providing opportunity for fluctuations in sonic characteristics such as rhythm, timbre, dynamics, and pitch of the stimuli would be a useful tool in ensuring similar fluctuations in EEG data. The next thing to consider is how to restrict the entire soundscape, ensuring that individual characteristics are not lost in a sea of sound. This is where setting and audio interface design comes into play.

Clearly, the interface design will play a vital role in the mood management of both the performer and the audience, but the setting of the event must also be chosen and arranged with as much consideration. The way the sound objects are positioned around the room, the lighting, the distance between the audience and the objects, and the location of the performer, amongst other attributes, are of vital importance in shaping the correct mood of all involved in the exhibition. Atmosphere plays a major role, and being in an unfamiliar location surrounded by strangers is to have an effect on the audience’s likelihood to interact freely with the sound objects.

The idea of arranging the performance space as if it were a living room has been raised amongst the group. This could fit in with some of the objects already being used (piano, turntable, speakers, laptop, tables), allowing for a more inviting and relaxing atmosphere. The introduction of lamps for illumination of the individual sound objects would also tie in with this theme. The individual illumination of objects in a dark room could help in attracting members of the audience to interact with these objects; something that required some encouragement during testing in a cramped, well-lit room.

Aside from all that has been mentioned, there are a range of design issues that play a pivotal role in the success of the installation; the visualization being one of the main aesthetic concerns. The visuals must be impressive on their own, but also correlate with the audio. They must be visibly linked to the output sound, not only to connect these main aspects of the installation but to provide gratification to the audience for their interaction. Providing a visible link between their actions and the sonic and visual output is the most likely way to evoke a sense of curiosity and excitement. This is seen as the best way to make the entire installation move fluently, providing a truly immersive environment for both the performer and the audience.


I. Deliege & J.W. Davidson, Music and the Mind. Oxford University Press, 2011.

S. Feld & K. Basso, Senses of Place. School of American Research Press, 1996.

S. Feld & C. Keil, Music Grooves. Fenestra Books, 2005.

Y.H. Hang & H.H. Chen, Music Emotion Recognition. CRC Press, 2011.

D. Howes, Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader. Berg Publishers, 2004.

W.F. Thompson, Music, Thought and Feeling: Understanding the Psychology of Music. OUP USA, 2008.

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