As music unfolds over time, fluctuations in listeners’ arousal level can be assessed by physiological measures. Strong emotional feelings induced by music are usually accompanied by heightened physiological arousal as reflected by increased skin conductance responses (SCRs). The aim of this study was to demonstrate that SCRs can be suppressed by musical events; cognitive-emotional processing of music in the central nervous system may lead to decreases in sympathetic activity and transient inhibition of sweat gland innervation. We recruited nonmusicians and recorded their real-time SCRs during the presentation of musical excerpts. Among 48 musical excerpts, seven excerpts were found to transiently reduce SCR amplitude to a level below the resting control value. Music analysis revealed that anticipation of sudden accents, music-evoked feelings of tenderness, and habituation or cancellation of an alarm in listeners may be associated with significant antipeaks on the average curve of SCR amplitude. In light of the neural mechanisms underlying SCR regulation, we suggest that an antipeak of average SCR amplitude represents a physiological signature of transient relaxation or executive control. With regard to music cognition, our findings shed new light on the perception of musical-tension/relaxation contrasts, major-minor ambiguity, and musical repetitions.
Empirical Studies of the Arts, vol. 33 no. 2 , 125-143