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Music, perceived arousal, and intensity: Psychophysiological reactions to Chopin's “Tristesse”



The present study investigates the relation of perceived arousal (continuous self-rating), autonomic nervous system activity (heart rate, heart rate variability) and musical characteristics (sound intensity, musical rhythm) upon listening to a complex musical piece. Twenty amateur musicians listened to two performances of Chopin's “Tristesse” with different rhythmic shapes. Besides conventional statistical methods for analyzing psychophysiological reactions (heart rate, respiration rate) and musical variables, semblance analysis was used. Perceived arousal correlated strongly with sound intensity; heart rate showed only a partial response to changes in sound intensity. Larger changes in heart rate were caused by the version with more rhythmic tension. The low-/high-frequency ratio of heart rate variability increased—whereas the high frequency component decreased—during music listening. We conclude that autonomic nervous system activity can be modulated not only by sound intensity but also by the interpreter's use of rhythmic tension. Semblance analysis enables us to track the subtle correlations between musical and physiological variables.