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A person sitting at a laptop displaying the Emote Control programme

In a new study, Durham researchers have investigated how a vast number of musical cues can help shape different emotions in music.

The research builds on previous experiments by our Music Department using an interactive computer interface called EmoteControl.

The latest version of EmoteControl allows users to control seven cues – the tempo, pitch, articulation, dynamics, brightness, and mode of a musical piece, and the instruments playing the piece, in real time.

The latest study used EmoteControl to explore an ambitious number of cues and their role in conveying different emotions through music.

Comparing approaches

Two methodological approaches were used in the study: production and perception.

In the production approach, participants were asked to shape different emotions in music using EmoteControl, which allowed them to change the musical cues under investigation as the music played in real-time.

In the perception approach, participants listened to several pieces of music with variations in the cues and were asked to grade which emotions they thought the music was expressing.

Findings showed that the musical cues mostly operated similarly to portray the same emotion in the music across the two approaches, but some musical cues were more important than others when shaping different emotions.

For example, mode and tempo had the biggest effect, whilst brightness and pitch cues were not as important.

A recipe for creating emotive music

Although overall the two approaches produced similar results, the differences obtained suggest that certain approaches may be better suited to investigate specific musical cues than others.

Furthermore, the production approach allowed participants to navigate through a cue-emotion space of more than two billion possible cue combinations, whilst the perception approach only allowed 252 cue combinations to be investigated.

The findings could be used by composers to formulate different ‘recipes’ for music depending on the emotion they wanted to portray.

This could be useful in areas such as creating film scores and in marketing where companies could ensure a particular emotion is associated with their brand depending on the music they use to advertise it.

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Ranked top of The Sunday Times Good University Guide for three of the past four years, the Music Department has been central to the Durham University’s three-year project to become the largest All-Steinway school in the UK.

Research-led teaching supports our students to achieve their full potential as thinking, creative musicians, and scholars. What’s more, Durham enjoys a rich musical life beyond the Department with numerous choirs, orchestras, opera, jazz, and early-music ensembles, in addition to our own annual concert series attracting soloists from around the World.

Feeling inspired? Visit our Music webpages for more information on our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.