The difference between emotions and feelings

Emotions are physical. They emerge from our body at the brain-stem/ lizard brain/ ‘old’ brain level as a result of sensory input. Music delivers sound and, if the listeners allow it, stimulates the emotional center of our brain called the amygdala.
“Feelings originate in the upper parts of the brain and are mental associations and reactions to those emotions. They are influenced by personal experience, beliefs and memories.” (from
This difference between emotions and feelings helps de-mystify why listeners relate to emotions in such a vast variety of ways. As Professor Antonio D’Amasioputs it:
“Feelings are mental experiences of body states, which arise as the brain interprets emotions, themselves physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli. (The order of such events is: I am threatened, experience fear, and feel horror.)

Sam Rivers: “Music is emotion.”

A short list of the ways emotions are traditionally elicited by a composer, beginning with the Baroque Era styles are:
  • the selection of scales and keys (major=happy, minor = sad, for example)
  • changes in tempo or speed (excitement/relaxation)
  • fear/calm (loud versus soft dynamics)
  • tension and resolution (through melodic dissonance and consonance with the established harmony)
  • surprise (through un-anticipated contrast of dynamics, rhythm, melody, phrase or harmonic direction)
  • pitch range (our empathic connection to higher notes in the voice creates tension. The middle registers of an instrument feel more relaxed)
  • articulations (slides, growls, slurs, glissandi, portamento, falls, hits, accents – all relate to human voice-like gestures)
  • tonal music that stays within a key and takes advantage of natural tonal gravity vs. atonal music, which creates tension because it is unpredictable
  • harmonic color, density, complexity
  • harmonic direction: up or down
  • choices of instruments in arrangement and orchestration
  • the use of regular cadences
  • the balance between passages made familiar through repetition vs. new sounds
  • the overall balance between simplicity and complexity, stressing cognitive load limits
People percieve music in ways unique to their life experiences, as well as their having their own ways of relating to emotions. This is why the feelings elicited by any specific music passage cover a wide range of emotional responses in audiences.
Historically, 20th Century concert composers and theorists cultivated a brilliant understanding of music that marginalized  emotions and feelings. Music theory is an elegant science. The paradox is that most people are attracted to music because of its emotional power, yet, modern classical composers are usually the least informed about the subject!  On the other hand, popular music professionals, film composers, game music composers and commercial media producers create music that is designed from the onset to bring out specific emotional responses – and their careers depend upon it.
Marshall B Rosenberg’s book Nonviolient Communication: A Language of Lifeis providing me with skills to discern the role of emotions v. feelings v. judgements in how we perceive and communicate. Since music without lyrics, the kind of music I love best, is also a form of emotional communication, nonviolent speaking (NVC) communication concepts are pushing me to reframe my answer to the perennial question “why is music so powerful in so many lives?”.

To see if I had the skills to create music that created specific emotional results, I composed feelings for small string orchestra. In the performance I asked the audience what they were feeling as the music played. Find out my results here.

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