Music and Facial Emotional Recognition: Journicle Review


Emotions are super important. Like, SUPER important. They basically dictate our lives and the everyday decisions that we choose to make, consciously or unconsciously. They motivate us to adapt our behavior, communicate our intentions, and help us manage our immediate environment. Learning to understand our emotions can lead to an increased awareness of the consequences of our actions, establish healthy coping skills, and influence how we develop and maintain social relationships. In summation, emotions are a BIG deal, my friends.


Unfortunately, no one can agree on what emotion really is and how to define it, which leads to inconsistency across the board when researchers decide to talk about it or make it an emphasis of their research efforts. If you don’t believe me, I’ll show you the first 30 pages of my thesis, which is essentially an eager attempt to define what emotion is. What we do know is that emotions are complex and have various different parts. One definition is that emotions are short-lived experiences of a response to a specific stimulus or scenario; they consist of a physiological response, such as increased arousal via heart rate and blood pressure; a subjective feeling, or personal mental experience; and, a physical response, including specific facial expressions. Identification of emotional facial expressions is a key stepping stone in emotion development, which directly impacts our social and communication skills.


For children with ASD, social and communication deficits exist as a common area of therapeutic emphasis. One possible reason for these deficits of social and communication domains could be caused by problems in emotion perception, which is what Brown discusses in her article “The Influence of Music on Facial Emotion Recognition in Children with ASD and NT Children”. Deficits in emotion perception and emotion processes have shown to cause issues including problem behaviors, joint attention and social functioning, which are ALL important. Brown mentioned how children with ASD have trouble perceiving facial expressions, but can identify emotions in music, specifically short melodies and orchestral excerpts. Due to the nature of music being inherently emotional, I am not surprised by this. Additionally, Brown discussed that “exploring the relationship between identification of emotional intent of music and perception of facial emotion may inform possible interventions for enhancing emotional understanding in children with ASD”.


Brown’s study was the first of its kind in researching the influence of music on facial emotion recognition in children with ASD. The study makes a blatant case for how music therapy interventions possess the ability to improve accuracy of labeling emotions and expression of emotions (Let’s face it — music is just the best). The leading research question for this article is whether children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and neurotypical children are differentially affected by music with strong emotional valence in their ratings of emotions in human faces (If you don’t know what valence is, “good”-ness or “bad”-ness).


Overall this study seemed to have decent methods and design. The participants in the study were 20 children with “high-functioning” ASD and 30 NT children between the ages of 6-13 years old. The task within the experiment was that the children would hear music (either happy or sad), see pictures of faces (happy, sad, or neutral), and then would have to decide how happy or sad the faces were. Participants listened to the music for 1 minute before the pictures appeared; they only had 12 seconds to rate each picture, and the music was looped for 10 minutes. The music used was “Allegro” by Vivaldi (happy) and “Adagio for Strings” by Barber (sad). The results essentially indicated that participants rated 30 faces correctly using the emotional categories of happy, sad, and neutral. Furthermore, children with ASD required repeated prompting to stay on task, response time was slower for sad music and faster for happy music, and that ONLY ratings of emotion recognition for sad faces were influenced by the music.
This article was respectable in the nature that it provided a catalyst for further research to continue down this avenue of addressing emotion-related goals, most specifically, emotion recognition. For someone like myself, this article hits close to home, as my thesis emphasizes the use of music to promote emotion recognition in young children. I’ve made my case for why emotion is important, but now I find myself questioning how my research attempts might be able to influence the music therapy profession. Brown’s study is limited in that only 2 pieces of music were used that, but vetted by both college music students and neurotypical children and given the labels of “happy” and “sad”. My question is, what is it about the music that allows us to attach these labels? Is a major key or minor key enough to suffice as a reasoning for happy and sad music? Also, how can we structure the music intentionally to convey a wider range of emotions such as anger or fear? My goal as a researcher is to entertain these questions. Once I find the answers, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Brown, L. S. (2017). The influence of music on facial emotion recognition in children with autism spectrum disorder and neurotypical children. Journal of Music Therapy, 54(1), 55-79.