My Individual Research Question

Joint action theory is a widely-accepted social psychology theory which attempts to explain how individuals can coordinate their behavior to to complete tasks in tandem.  One fairly robust piece of evidence that supports the ideas put forth in joint action theory is interpersonal entrainment; that is, people are repeatedly shown to have a natural proclivity to fall into synchrony with one another, in everything from walking speeds to speech patterns.  On an cognitive and emotional level, this interpersonal entrainment manifests itself as, among other things, empathy and our ability to interpret facial expressions as emotive.

Similarly, as we’ve explored in class, researchers in the field of music cognition are working on models of musical entrainment, whereby the human body and mind adapt their rhythmic patterns to match those in a piece of music.  This leads to the phenomena of expectation theory (by which we are able to detect and predict rhythms in music) and emotional embodiment (by which rhythmic meters produce physiological responses that are correlated with human emotions).

My question is, then, if a steady rhythm can produce a similar physiological response across individuals, can that rhythm affect those individuals’ interpretation of emotions expressed by other people?  Specifically, if participants were shown images of faces coded as various emotions as they were played pieces of likewise-coded music, would they be able to more accurately (and reliably) interpret the expressions depicted in the faces?  Conversely, would their ability to do so be negatively impacted if they were played a piece of music that did not align affectively with the facial expression shown?  Put simply, how do varying tempos in musical rhythms affect individuals’ interpretations of others emotions?

4 thoughts on “My Individual Research Question

  1. This is progressing nicely. In reponse to your email, although I admire your readiness to start designing an experiment, at this stage of the individual project, you should be focusing on the literature review. Who are the main people working on these questions? What are their findings? You might want to look in particular for sources that deal with joint action, rhythm, and emotion. This will be a good case study for our research workshop on Thursday. It is not a good idea to plan an experiment too much before knowing what has been done. You might end up replicating a previous study without knowing it!

  2. Another thought that just came up in class: Can distance from the music impact one’s empathetic ability? That is, if you are prevented from grooving along, does that make you less able to interpret the emotions of those around you who are?

  3. Your question is a fairly original one, and not one that I have seen addressed in the specific way you suggest. I am not sure how much traction you will get from it and whether you will need to modify your perspective in order to give it substance. This is not because the question is not interesting, but because if there is not enough previous work that aligns with your question, it might be difficult to work it out.

    In any case, there is several related topics to explore and gain more familiarity with before having to give final shape to your project. One is joint action theory and how it has been used/explored in the study of music (and rhythm) cognition specifically. Another related topic is that of emotion, but that one has the reverse problem: it is huge! I suggest you do some exploration to determine which specific sub-topical areas within that of music and emotions might be most relevant to your question. To that end, it might be useful for you to browse through a few surveys on music and emotion. There are several collections of essays on that topic (let me know if you can’t identify them).

    A final thought: There has been some studies on how facial expression of performers influence listeners’ perception and what kind of information such expressions might contain that is relevant to music perception. Is that a related topic for you?

    Good luck and keep me posted!

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