Guest Blog: Music and Emotion

 With the upcoming release of our soundtrack album next month, we are pleased to host a guest blog from one of our composers. 



By Vivek Maddala


Music has been described as “sound organized to affect a listener’s emotions.”  Many visual art forms are capable of affecting a person’s mood or state of mind, but none has the power to elicit subjective emotion the way music can.  Psychology researchers at the University of London have determined that music is unique—among all methods of communication—in its ability to transmit precisely tuned emotional information to a listener. And composers like myself are especially adept at creating emotionally evocative stimuli.  But why does music have this power? 

Award-winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who worked closely with George Lucas and Francis Coppola, has a theory about how it works.  According to Murch, music’s unique ability to affect human emotion can be traced back to the womb. pregnant-mom.jpg“Hearing is the first of our senses to be switched on, four-and-a-half months after we are conceived. And for the rest of our time in the womb—another four-and-a-half months—we are pickled in a rich brine of sound that permeates and nourishes our developing consciousness: the intimate and varied pulses of our mother’s heart and breath; her song and voice; the low rumbling and sudden flights of her intestinal trumpeting; the sudden, mysterious, alluring or frightening fragments of the outside world—all of these swirl ceaselessly around the womb-bound child, with no competition from dormant Sight, Smell, Taste or Touch.”

[It’s interesting to note that the opening scene in AWAKE:  THE LIFE OF YOGANANDA brilliantly captures the dreamlike diaphanous state Murch references, using richly illustrative sonic metaphors.  Soon, we’re thrust through an allegorical birth canal into the cacophonous real world, where sound immediately entangles with sight—albeit taking a back seat.] 

But we’re still left wondering how only music—a peculiarly organized set of sounds, as distinguished from other arrangements of sound—can affect our emotions so powerfully.  Perhaps since music is intrinsically “allusory” (i.e. suggestive), unlike human speech, it creates conceptual gaps into which our imaginations are reflexively drawn—coaxing us to complete circles that are only implied. When each of us listens to a piece of music, in effect, we bring to the experience portions of ourselves, formed by our distinctive histories.  

This is especially true with certain forms of Eastern music—in fact, it becomes part of the performance.  Indian classical music, as distinguished from its Western counterpart, relies not on determinism (with every note written out) but on a kind of personalization atop established forms.  In this way, Indian ragas find quite a bit in common with American Bebop and Modern Jazz (a la Miles Davis, John Coltrane, et al.), where improvisation complements cyclic forms, which are defined rhythmically and harmonically.

ganges_1235009c.jpgIndian music is based on ragas (colors), formed around scales and melodic modes. The idea is to create an emotional state, or mood.  In this way, Indian music is unlike Western classical music in that it doesn’t broadcast precisely what was in the mind and heart of the composer.  Ragas represent the result of centuries-long evolutionary musical processes, and thus tend to convey to the listener a kind of universal idea of the world.  The music possesses the virtue of sensory incompleteness—an incompleteness that engages the imagination of the listener as compensation for what is only suggested.  This can be extraordinarily potent, in that the listener is invited to “answer,” using his or her emotions, half-posed questions presented by the music.

When creating the music score for AWAKE, we (I and co-composer Michael Mollura) found that combining Indian raga forms with Western idioms (classical and modern) would allow for a broad range of expression, and the ability to affect the emotional content on screen with abundant possibilities.  At times, I created clearly written chamber string pieces that transmit pacing, mood, and purpose to the audience quite explicitly.  At other times, I sprinkled into the musical dish a pinch of Hindustani raga, or a dash of Carnatic veena phrasing, to create a kind of cinematic counterpoint, imparting an opaque sense of time and place, inviting the audience to connect dots themselves based on their own experience.  Combinations of these different idioms provided the musical clay with which to sculpt dramatic contours to reflect the twists and arcs in Yogananda’s story. Indeed, the process of scoring AWAKE uncovered for me new, intriguing ways to impart the elusive emotional power that only music can make. 




  • Logeswaran, Nidhya, and Joydeep Bhattacharya. "Crossmodal Transfer of Emotion by Music." Neuroscience Letters 455.2 (2009): 129-33.
  •  Juslin, Patrik N., and Petri Laukka. "Communication of Emotions in Vocal Expression and Music Performance: Different Channels, Same Code?" Psychological Bulletin 129.5 (2003).
  •  Ondaatje, Michael, and Walter Murch. "The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film". Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2002.
  •  Changizi, Mark. "Why Does Music Make Us Feel?" Scientific American Global RSS. Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Inc., 15 Sept. 2009. Web. 11 May 2015.
  •  Lerdahl, Fred, and Ray Jackendoff. "A Generative Theory of Tonal Music". Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1983.


Showing 5 reactions

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  • Krta Krvi
    commented 2016-11-29 00:22:55 -0800
    great effort.
  • Krta Krvi
    commented 2016-11-15 07:23:24 -0800
    You have showed the relation of Music and Emotion to put some examples from real Life. Music and Emotion have solid relation and we can understand to listen the music and then feel it. Your each word which contain this article is right and base on facts. Any how, A site have some more articles on the same topic with good information.
  • Anonymous
    commented 2016-01-18 05:34:11 -0800
    Just wanted to let you know that the references provided are very substantial. I used the same for article.
  • Bernd Willimek
    commented 2015-08-07 00:30:58 -0700
    Why do Minor Chords Sound Sad?

    The Theory of Musical Equilibration states that in contrast to previous hypotheses, music does not directly describe emotions: instead, it evokes processes of will which the listener identifies with.

    A major chord is something we generally identify with the message, “I want to!” The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, “No more.” If someone were to say the words “no more” slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

    The Theory of Musical Equilibration applies this principle as it constructs a system which outlines and explains the emotional nature of musical harmonies. For more information you can google Theory of Musical Equilibration.

    Bernd Willimek
  • Leslie Kaufmann Chin
    commented 2015-05-15 09:41:51 -0700
    Native American traditions of the past and present, and the ancients of eastern and western civilizations revered music as an expression of the divine.
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