The Sound Resonance Project: Can We Measure the Emotions of Music?

Woman singing opera

To witness the healing power of music, you don’t have to look any further than the spontaneous outbursts of singing by thousands of people as they watched in horror and disbelief at the flames shooting out of the Notre-Dame Cathedral on Monday. In these gentle voices, there is the sound of sorrow and grief in death. There is also gratitude to a place built for sanctuary. And hope that something can be saved.

Built 850 years ago, Notre-Dame holds the memories of our ancestors, hosting rituals and traditions that give us meaning regardless of the name of our faith. Somehow our bodies and minds, aching in pain, know intuitively to sing together to ease this unfathomable loss and remind us that we belong to one another.

It is in this spirit that the International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab) has embarked on an experiment to understand how music connects us to our own selves and each other. The Sound Resonance project aims to study the effect of music to reduce stress and enhance a state of calm amongst high needs communities around the world, including refugees and people in areas of conflict. IAM Lab, in collaboration with the Musical Acoustics Lab of the Politecnico di Milano and Empatica and supported by PRIMA Management, the City Administration of Cremona and the Cultural District of Violin Making, kicked off the first phase of research this April.

Just days before people gathered at the foot of Notre-Dame to sing Ave Maria, Sound Resonance gathered in Cremona, Italy to hold an experimental concert and ask the question:  “Can we measure the emotions of music?” Guests enjoyed a moving program of four musical genres including opera, Gregorian chants, classical pieces and Easter hymns in the setting of Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, a public museum and art gallery.

Sound Resonance Project Concert

Susan Magsamen, executive director of IAM Lab explained, “We want to better understand how music creates communal feelings and deep personal resonance. We’re looking at range of emotions including sadness, wonder, tenderness, tension, intensity, nostalgia, peace, joy and transcendence.”

Each participant wore an Empatica wristband with sensors designed to capture his or her biological response to the performances, including heart rate and body temperature, a proxy for one’s emotional response. The response data will be examined not only by musical genre but also by five levels of music immersion.

Guests wear Empatica wristbands

Capturing biological responses to music

“Everyone is moved by music, but it’s a combination of life experience, conditioning and DNA that dictates one’s personal response,” said Magsamen. “We are just to beginning to understand the science behind the healing power of music. The implications are huge for prevention and treatment of a range of health issues including stress, anxiety and depression.”

The Sound Resonance experiment will continue and expand, exploring biological responses to both live and recorded music across diverse populations.  Project collaborators hope to transform the findings into accessible and cost-effective therapies for those who lack access to traditional medicine.

“We also believe music is an antidote to increasingly fast-paced world by creating empathy and greater understanding between people of different backgrounds. Empathy enables us to have deep emotional connections that transcend circumstances, age, race, gender and class,” said Magsamen.

If the hymns sung mournfully on the banks of Seine tell us anything, it’s that music is universal and transcendent, making it an essential part of our humanity.

 

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