It’s probably a couple of years since I last undertook an online course with FutureLearn, but a few weeks ago I signed up for a short course from Griffith University called Music Psychology: Why Does “Bohemian Rhapsody” Feel so Good? It was a simple introduction to some of the basic principles of music psychology, and while it didn’t go into anything like as much depth as the text book that I read last summer, it was still interesting. It’s something I’m looking at because it helps me to understand how Tudor ballads might have affected people.

Emotions have a physiological component, and a psychological component which interprets those physiological effects.  This comes together with our musical expectations (based on our experience of other music that we have heard) to help create emotions.  These combine with our cognitive appraisal of the situation. Our emotional reaction to the event (or music) depends on whether or not we expected what happened, and the context of what happened.

The expectations are, in effect, predictions of what will happen. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain which rewards us for predicting things that turn out to be true, and if the chances of the prediction being true were low but we got it right, it gives us more of a reward.  When we listen to music, we are unconsciously comparing it to everything we have already heard, so it our brains are rewarded with dopamine when the expectations that are set up are fulfilled.  Different songs play with our expectations in different ways, so they make us feel different emotions.  Likewise, our own feelings and experiences change, so the emotions created by the same song might be different at different times. 

There was one particularly interesting task, comparing our emotional responses to different parts of the song Bohemian Rhapsody, and explaining why others might have a different reaction. I find the ‘Mama’ section quite melancholy – it has a sparse texture and the relaxed tempo feeds into this feeling too. It’s a style of music that is ballad-like, which I enjoy. ‘So you think you can stone me’ is much more rock-orientated, and not a style I would normally listen to out of choice, but the much harsher tone, full texture and quicker tempo are a significant contrast. I find this section tense and agitated, but it works for me as a part of the whole – which plays on the changes from one section to another. Other people’s stylistic preferences and musical experience might mean that the rock is more familiar and therefore their preferred style, because it fulfils more of their expectations.

As emotions are based on our expectations, our emotional responses to music are based on what we expect to happen.  And skilled composers are able to take advantage of our expectations of what will happen when.  They can choose to fulfil or deny our expectations at different places in the music.  When those expectations are fulfilled, we get a hit of dopamine which is pleasant.

Another task asked: What’s a part of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen that you really look forward to when you listen to it? How do you feel when you reach that part of the song? One of the places in Bohemian Rhapsody that I look forward to is Brian May’s guitar solo after ‘never been born at all’.  Why?  Because it’s soulful, and it gives you a break from listening to the words and trying to process them.  Actually, I’ve never realised that it’s the guitar solos that I really like before – because the one before ‘So you think you can stone me’ has the same effect.  I wonder if it’s because they are the signals for the changes of style/pace etc….  And I get the frisson (the chills, or goosebumps) at the end, at the 5 minute mark.

What interested me a lot about this task was that my response was very different to most people. According to the course tutor, many people find the guitar solo after verse 2 an anticlimax because they are expecting a chorus!

Anyway, I don’t think I learned anything new about music psychology, but it was certainly good to refresh my memory and it used some interesting examples.