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Associating Emotion and Music:
Classical Conditioning and the Way Children Learn

by Ryan Fielding


       This study investigates the initial underlying process by which children learn to associate emotions and music. There are several fundamental views proposing explanations for such processes. One view is based on J.J. Gibson’s ecological approach to perception (Gibson, 1979), which implies that there are cues within a field being perceived that give information about the field, a view very Gestalt in nature. The other view is based on L.B. Meyer’s theory (Meyer, 1956) that information about a perceived field is accumulated temporally though experiences with the field. The accumulation of information gives the perceiver representational content with which they identify the field, thus giving the field meaning. The current study supports Meyer, which ultimately implies a learned association between emotion and music. The hypothesis of this study states that when children undergo mood induction procedures while hearing music defined as being emotionally neutral, they will learn to pair the emotion of the induction with the music. 
       In this study 44 children between the ages of 7 and 12 were assigned to either a happy or sad condition (22 children in each group) featuring mood induction as the unconditioned stimulus. The induction, done with children’s stories, was paired with the music operationally defined as emotionally neutral. At a later time children rated the music on emotional content using a 5-point Likert-type scale. Results using independent t-tests to compare the experimental groups supported the hypothesis, showing that learned associations were made between the moods of the inductions and the neutral music. These results support Meyer over Gibson, implying that children require experience with a field in order to create representational content through which they come to understand the field.  Had this worked according to Gibson’s theory, all the children would have used cues intrinsic to the music to identify the emotion and the null hypothesis would have been supported. The processes of Meyer’s theory have been shown, then, to come before those of Gibson’s, indicating a hierarchy of processes in the way children learn. Implications of this kind of research relate to child therapies where learned sounds and sound inflections present in the human voice can be learned to represent social cues and give referential meaning to social contexts.

Keywords:  classical condtioning, music, emotion, mood, child, children, learning, 
                    speech therapy, social therapy, referential meaning