Can we Measure the Emotions of Music (with BBC Radio Ulster)?

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Our emotions are deeply embedded in our response to music. This week, we had the pleasure of hosting the BBC in our lab to explore the science of this emotional experience.

In a show called 'How Music Works' for BBC Radio Ulster, award-winning science communicator and musician Emer Maguire was investigating the boundary between music and technology. To delve into how our minds and bodies respond to music, she was set the challenge of listening to tracks from different music genres while we measured her emotional response to them. We've been measuring the emotions of media experiences for years so this was right up our street.

Emer described how she had felt about each track before we looked at the data derived from our system. When we then scrubbed through the results in our dashboard, they matched very neatly with Emer's description. We had modelled Emer's emotional state over time in our standard two-dimensional chart of valence and arousal, as previously explained here: A Primer on Emotion Science for our Autonomous Future.

Emer's valence-arousal score plotted a clear journey of shifting emotion through the four tracks that she listened to. Starting with her discomfort at the kitsch sentimentality of a Daniel O'Donnell song, she soon shifted into a more relaxed zone as Mozart and then Miles Davis played out through the surround-sound system we have in our research lab. Finally, her emotional score ramped up into a more stimulated quadrant of the chart when the last track, Mark Ronson's Amy Winehouse cover of 'Valerie' played out. Emer instantly recognised the track and enjoyed every beat of it.

While it's still available you can listen to the show here: (from 28':05" to 44':37").

Media content such as music has always been both emotionally charged and emotive for the audience. Artists and storytellers are experts at pushing our emotional buttons. And now, with the growing availability of biometric sensors and empathic AI processing, the emotional media experience can finally become a two-way street. From creating the world's first emotional response horror film in 2011, to co-developing solutions with global tech companies for games and other media that respond to the audience's feelings in real-time, we're in the midst of an empathic AI trend that will change media & entertainment forever.

Ben Bland

Chief Operations Officer