Faculty Mentors: Steve ricks, school of Music; Neal Bangerter, Electrical and Computer Engineering
In order to study the relationship between music and color in areas of brain activity, I proposed
to have participants’ brains scanned by an MRI machine while seeing different colors and
listening to contrasting music samples. After learning that aural and visual response use
completely different areas of the brain, the study was modified to instead connect emotions to
music, since emotional response to music can be mapped in the brain. Based on the resulting
data, I wrote a composition to be played by DuoX, a group in Amsterdam. This composition was
written in segments, and the performers chose which segment of music to play next from a
notated path based on what emotions they were feeling. I traveled to Amsterdam to watch the
performance. The performers’ choices were then compared to the results of the MRI study.
Under Dr. Ricks’s guidance, I composed six varying 30-second musical excerpts. These excerpts
were written for Sho (a Japanese instrument) or Eb Alto Saxophone paired with Bb Clarinet or
Bb Bass Clarinet. Recordings of these excerpts were created using virtual instruments. Each
excerpt was unique in terms of dynamics, articulation, harmonic vocabulary, tempo, note
durations, and/or meter.
Laurel Hales, a research assistant for Dr. Bangerter, programmed an application to repeat the six
excerpts and pictures of facial expressions representing six emotions (surprise, disgust, sadness,
anger, joy, and fear) over the course of 30 minutes. Data was collected from five male and five
female participants, who had their brain scanned in an MRI machine while watching/listening to
this application. Participants were asked to focus on feeling the emotions of the facial
expressions while watching them, as well as on feeling an emotional response to each musical
excerpt. Each brain scan was analyzed to find which emotions had the closest area of brain
activity to each musical excerpt. The results of the ten scans were averaged and the emotions
were ranked from closest correlation to furthest correlation for each musical excerpt.
I then composed a composition to be performed by the group DuoX in Amsterdam. This piece
was made of 30-second segments which each shared a style with one of the excerpts from the
MRI study. The performers would play a segment, and then follow one of two arrows, each
arrow labeled with either the emotion closest to the excerpt or furthest from. A designated
performer would choose which of the two emotions were closest to what they were feeling
during the previous segment, and both performers would follow the respective arrow. These
arrows would point to which segment to play next. If the performers chose all the emotions
which most closely correlated to each respective style in the MRI study, each style would be
played at least once and the composition would follow a musically logical progression.
The performers chose the emotion closest to the MRI study results four times, and chose the
emotion furthest from those results three times. Due to the choices they made, the order of
segments resulted in two styles being played twice. If repeats of segment styles are omitted, then
the performers followed the MRI study results twice and were furthest from those results three
Both of these interpretations show that the performers’ choices do not have a clear or
overwhelming connection to the results of the MRI study. This may have been caused by a
variety of reasons:
Music may evoke different emotions for the performer than it does for a listener.
The performers might not have felt either of the two listed emotions, so they may have
picked one randomly.
The performers may have thought they were feeling an emotion different from what they
were actually feeling.
MRI participants listened to virtual instruments, while the performers used live
instruments. This difference in quality may have influenced emotional response.
The results of this study show that the emotions people feel when listening to or performing
music may be different for each person. The styles of music used were differing in terms of
compositional elements; therefore, they were not in styles which people are accustomed to.
Perhaps emotional response is more related to a listener’s understanding of or familiarity with
the music than the compositional elements in the music itself.