emotional contagion

A conductor relies on emotional contagion.


Since the discovery of and research on mirror neurons, we’ve come to believe that they are partially responsible for emotional contagion.


Wait, I feel like I’ve written this before.  I have.  So I’ll just paste an excerpt from my article, “Thoughtful Gestures,” found in your April 2010 Choral Journal:

Contagion is a notion derived from medicine. Most people have experienced the sensation finding someone’s energy contagious, or read headlines around Inauguration Day about “catching Obama fever.”  Emotional contagion is “a multiply determined family of psychophysiological, behavioral, and social phenomena,” meaning it, rather like a cold, can be caught from a wide variety of sources and manifest with many possible symptoms.  This relates to the mirror neuron system because “the basic emotional contagion system is thought to support our ability to empathize emotionally (‘I feel how you feel’) and has been linked to the human MNS,” meaning it is inherent in each of us. 

Entrainment is one symptom of contagion.  Research for this article came up with no studies linking entrainment and the mirror neuron system, but has already been applied to musical rehearsals: James Jordan discusses Robert Shaw’s use of entrainment with a pendulum.  Synchrony is another symptom of the contagion, as is mimicry.  This is the process through which Fuelberth’s singers would develop vocal tension in response to tension in their conductor’s hand [referring to s study which examined the perception of vocal tension in relationship to tension in a conductor’s left hand].  People naturally tend to imitate others, and the performance of an expressive act can trigger the emotion associated with that act.  That is why “evolutionary theorists have argued that sad, frightened, and angry faces may trigger powerful emotional reactions, and that it may be difficult to extinguish such innate reactions.” This is, after all, what communication is for: the ability to give warning and to take heed without having to think about it probably lengthened the lives of our ancestors.  The range of individuals’ susceptibility to emotional contagion and their ability to infect others is wide, but can be increased with training


So, a conductor depends on emotional contagion.  When I wrote about Leonard Bernstein, I emphasized his ability to get performers to take on the responsibility of being artists, of engaging with the music in the moment they make it.  You can ask them to do it, if they’re great musicians like the members of the NY Phil, and then trust that they will  But one of the jobs of a conductor is to live the emotional intention of the music in order to influence the performers, and that’s where emotional contagion comes in.  

As empathy starts to take place, the conductor, then the performers, then the audience start to connect with the feeling in the air.  Sounds fruity, but it actually happens.  Well, it can happen.  Especially if:
  • You allow it.  It’s a choice–you won’t necessarily get carried away by a dramatic moment.  But if you would like to, you can allow yourself to be affected.  You already know this, you’ve already made this choice sometime in your life.  You can develop your skill at it, and increase your empathy.  (More on this when I talk in greater detail about neuroplasticity.)
  • There are multiple means of communication.  In a movie you get sound and light and story.  In a live theater performance, you also get the actual feelings of the actual people on stage–pheromones might be involved, so that even our sense of smell is helping us to empathize.  In a musical performance, it’s more difficult.   Classical music takes some training to get into.  I mean, it’s wonderful and anyone can love it, but the more you know about it, the easier it is to listen to.  The better you understand it, the quicker you can perceive the expressive intent of the composer.  You also, in a live performance, get the benefit of the emotions of individual performers if they are, as they should be, really living that expression and not just reproducing notes on a page.

Emotional contagion.  More science that shows why art is art.

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One Response to emotional contagion

  1. Pingback: in favor of brainwashing | Thoughtful Gestures

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