The role of emotion in musical improvisation: An analysis of structural features

Malinda J. McPherson, Monica Lopez-Gonzalez, Summer K. Rankin, Charles J. Limb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


One of the primary functions of music is to convey emotion, yet how music accomplishes this task remains unclear. For example, simple correlations between mode (major vs. minor) and emotion (happy vs. sad) do not adequately explain the enormous range, subtlety or complexity of musically induced emotions. In this study, we examined the structural features of unconstrained musical improvisations generated by jazz pianists in response to emotional cues. We hypothesized that musicians would not utilize any universal rules to convey emotions, but would instead combine heterogeneous musical elements together in order to depict positive and negative emotions. Our findings demonstrate a lack of simple correspondence between emotions and musical features of spontaneous musical improvisation. While improvisations in response to positive emotional cues were more likely to be in major keys, have faster tempos, faster key press velocities and more staccato notes when compared to negative improvisations, there was a wide distribution for each emotion with components that directly violated these primary associations. The finding that musicians often combine disparate features together in order to convey emotion during improvisation suggests that structural diversity may be an essential feature of the ability of music to express a wide range of emotion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere105144
JournalPloS one
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 21 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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