Music, Emotions and Well-being: historical and scientific perspectives

International Conference, 20 June 2014

Robin Brook Centre, Queen Mary University of London

Organised by Penelope Gouk (Manchester), James Kennaway (Newcastle), Jacomien Prins (Warwick), and Wiebke Thormählen (Royal College of Music)

Music is commonly treated as an emotional stimulant that can calm, console or energise. That music can and frequently does contribute to an individual’s sense of well-being is commonly accepted. This relationship between music, the emotions and well-being has been studied from two different perspectives. It has been the subject of historical investigations problematizing what emotions are and exploring historically variant practices of using music as an emotional tool. Secondly, studies by psychologists and, increasingly, by neurologists have produced exciting results by measuring music’s effect on the emotions in physiological terms that appear universal and a-historical. We aim to bring these two seemingly incompatible views of music’s emotional effects together to search for research strategies that can incorporate ideas of cultural conditioning into scientific research methods. As such, the symposium addresses both the role and potential of music in well-being, but it also raises the bar for medical humanities by investigating how its research areas can impact on research questions and strategies beyond the humanities. Delegates will present their views from the fields of neurology, cognitive psychology, music therapy, history and musicology. The symposium will be based on pre-circulated papers to allow maximum discussion time.

In this interdisciplinary research symposium we will bring together historians, musicologists, psychologists, music therapists, and neuroscientists, to look beyond influential yet often un-theorized views of music and ‘emotion’ to explore how music can function as a strategic tool in establishing individual well-being. The relationship between music, the body and the nervous system is the subject of intense interest both in a medical context and in the humanities. While neurologists have researched the impact of music on the brain, musicologists have rediscovered the significance of music’s physical effects in historical and present-day contexts.

These investigations into music’s relationship with emotions and with well-being fall broadly into two categories: scientific understandings of music’s emotional effects commonly take both music and emotions as unproblematic, universal categories; while historical approaches show these categories to be culturally contingent. This duality is entrenched in different methodological approaches which appear to necessitate the duality, yet at the heart of the opposition lies a fundamental discrepancy between different disciplinary groups’ modes of understanding data.

We aim to question the duality’s necessity and explore new ways to merge research questions by investigating how postmodern theories of social and historical conditioning can influence the formulation of scientific research questions. Through this symposium we aim to further an understanding of each field’s research questions and methods, and to explore new collaborative projects.

For further information, including the exact London location, please visit our conference website at:

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