Music and Emotions

Music is a very powerful tool when it comes to any kind of storytelling, including VR. It can radically change the meaning of a scene, give us information about the plot, point our attention to something, and make us laugh or cry. All of this without words. Moreover, the message is so clear that people of different cultures, languages, and ages have no problem understanding the message it conveys. Lately, I was wondering how this is possible.

There are several theories which try to explain this phenomenon, one which I found fascinating. Juslin and Västfjäll (2008) proposed an interesting framework called BRECVEMA, which tries to explain the mechanism behind emotions evoked through music. It presents an evolutionary perspective on the perception of sound. Our ancestors developed different mechanisms which could detect sound patterns, analyze them and choose the right behavior in order to avoid danger.

This theoretical framework includes 8 different mechanisms which can evoke emotion:

  1. The brain stem reflex – the quick brain response to certain simple sound patterns which alerts the body about a possible important or threatening event; these are automatic and impossible to untrain (e.g. the kettledrum stroke in Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 (2nd movement))
  2. Rhythmic entrainment – powerful rhythms in music influence the inner rhythm in our body (e.g. heart rate or breath). Listeners usually adjust their inner rhythms to the music, which then evokes feelings.
  3. Evaluating conditioning – emotions are triggered because some aspect of music (e.g. melody) occurred several times simultaneously with another event that induces emotions (e.g. listening to the same music when meeting with a friend), this mechanism is used very often in film music where certain motives are associated with specific characters.
  4. Emotional contagion – response to the music which has features similar to the human voice expressing emotion. We are very sensitive to emotions expressed by the voice. If something sounds similar to it, it can easily evoke the same emotion. This also applies to cello or violin which have acoustic features similar to the human voice.
  5. Visual imagery – music evokes visual images which are then connected with emotions. For example, a slow, peaceful ascending passage of music can trigger the image of sunrise.
  6. Episodic memory – music can cause us to recall the memory of a very important life event, and the emotion induced is associated with this memory
  7. Musical expectancy – emotions are evoked because music violates, confirms or delays the expectation of its continuation, such as a sudden pause in a repeating musical pattern. These expectations are based on our previous experience with the same kind of music.
  8. Aesthetic judgment – emotions are triggered by the listener’s appreciation for the aesthetic value of the music.

Music can be very powerful. It took me some time while growing up to realize how much music was affecting my mood and learn how to use it wisely. I believe that the wise use of music in VR, supplemented with the use of new technology like 3D audio, can be a very important factor in creating a compelling experience.


Susan Hallam, Ian Cross, and Michael Thaut. (2016). The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology

Patrik Juslin & Daniel Västfjäll, ‘Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31, 2008; 559-621.


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