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Emotional Musical Signals

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EMUSIG (Emotional Musical Signals)

Reporting period: 2019-05-01 to 2021-04-30

Music is renowned for its ability to powerfully portray and induce emotions. This ability has led music to be a constant presence in our lives. While many researchers have investigated how music portrays and induces emotion, there were many unanswered questions regarding how music expresses one particular emotion: fear. Fear is an incredibly important emotion as it plays a predominant role in human behaviors and thought patterns, such as those involved in risk assessment, social interactions, personal beliefs, and more. It is imperative for society to understand fear well. As a strong manipulator and signaller of emotions, music could provide the perfect platform for fear research. Therefore, the main goal of the Emotional Musical Signals (EMUSIG) research program was to catalogue how music communicates fear, both as a cultural and biological signal, and to uncover how these musical fear signals are perceived using methods from psychology, neuroscience, and music theory.

To achieve this goal, the fellow first trained in several psychology and neuroscience methods. Next, she curated and systematically validated a new database of fearful film music excerpts called FEARMUS. Upon creating this database, she is now investigating the potential ethological underpinnings of musical fear signals with two studies: an fMRI study and an eye tracking study. Additionally, the fellow is working to catalogue and analyze the cultural signals present in scary music using topic theory analysis in a virtual secondment at the University of Leeds. Finally, she plans to synthesize the results of the research program into a comprehensive report on musical fear signaling. Overall, the results provide a detailed understanding of how music communicates fear, through both biological and cultural signalling.
Objective 1: Training in neuroscience methods
During the grant period, the fellow greatly advanced her programming abilities in MATLAB, R, and Python. MATLAB allowed her to program experiment interfaces and analyze fMRI data. She used R for statistical analyses and Python for acoustic analyses. The fellow also deepened her knowledge of statistics to elevate her experimental designs and analyses. To complete the fMRI project, the fellow took a course in fMRI data analysis and studied various neuroscience materials. The Marie Curie action allowed her to make huge strides in her training as a scientist, greatly improving her ability to design and lead world class research projects. Uniquely armed with skills in both music theory and neuroscience, the fellow now feels more confident in her work and better prepared to lead her own music cognition laboratory.

Objective 2: Creation of the database of music for terror & anxiety (FEARMUS)
The fellow used her music theory expertise to curate 180 excerpts of terrifying and anxious film music. She then collected emotion ratings for each excerpt in a behavioral experiment. She used these ratings to filter the database down to the most representative excerpts. This database will be the largest existing database of scary music excerpts and the first to divide scary music into two categories: terror and anxiety.

Objective 3: Analyses of FEARMUS & Secondment
The fellow is currently using both acoustic analyses and topic theory to analyze the FEARMUS excerpts. While the COVID19 pandemic made the planned in-person secondment at the University of Leeds impossible, the fellow is still collaborating virtually with the topic theory expert at Leeds, Clive McClelland. The results of this work will provide the most detailed report to date on how music conveys two types of fear: terror and anxiety.

Objective 4: Investigating biological fear signals in scary music
Terrifying music frequently uses scream-like sounds. The fellow hypothesized that scream-like music might be a biological signal in music to portray terror, in mimicry of actual human screams. To test this, the fellow used scream-like music and human screams as stimuli in an fMRI paradigm. While postponed due to the COVID19 pandemic, data was eventually successfully collected from 32 participants at the University of Zurich hospital. The fellow has now almost completed analyzing the fMRI data and the results will be written up in the following months. The fellow also conducted a behavioral and acoustic analysis project testing how similarly scream-like music sounds and is perceived like human screams. The results suggest that while musical screams effectively signal terror and mimic a key acoustic feature of human screams, screams are still the more effective fear signal. On the other hand, anxious music often uses a drone tone - a sustained musical note - in order to induce anxiety in the listener. The fellow designed an eye tracking experiment in order to examine whether this device might be effective on its own when accompanying non-anxious music. The COVID19 pandemic has delayed data collection for this study until October 2021.

Objective 5: Dissemination of results
The full research program is set to produce six individual manuscripts. The results of the study of how similarly scream-like music sounds and is perceived to human screams has been published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America as an express letter titled, “Terrifying film music mimics alarming acoustic feature of human screams” (2020) by Caitlyn Trevor, Luc Arnal, and Sascha Fruehholz. A shorter version of the paper was also published as a conference proceeding article following a virtual presentation of the results at the 2nd International Conference on Timbre in Thessaloniki, Greece (2020). The fellow also presented her results at the Society for Music Perception and Cognition conference in New York (2019), the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Sheffield, UK (virtually; 2021), and the Brain, Cognition, Emotion, and Music conference in Canterbury, UK (virtually; 2020). She also gave an invited talk on her results at Sorbonne University (2020). Finally, the fellow is preparing a public lecture for Scientifica (September 2021) - an open exposition of Swiss research.
The fellow has received an additional six month postdoctoral position at the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Zurich during which the remaining goals of the project will be completed. The final dataset for the eye tracking study will be collected, analyzed, and written up in a manuscript. Additionally, the manuscripts reporting the fMRI results, the FEARMUS database, the topic theory analyses, and the final synthesis of all results will also be completed and submitted for publication. The FEARMUS database will be made publicly available to provide researchers with a new and more effective way of portraying and inducing fear in their research paradigms, greatly expanding our understanding of this crucial emotion. The final results of the project will greatly advance our understanding of scary music, furthering the ever-growing field of music and emotion research. In summary, the Marie Curie action successfully prepared the fellow to be a unique independent researcher through extensive training in a variety of skills and methods, placement in a productive, excellent laboratory, and the opportunity to complete a groundbreaking research program in her field.
The image summarizes the steps the fellow took to uncover how music communicates fear.