The source dilemma hypothesis: Perceptual uncertainty contributes to musical emotion

Tanor L Bonin, Laurel T Trainor, MICHEL BELYK, Paul Andrews*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (journal)peer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Music can evoke powerful emotions in listeners. Here we provide the first empirical evidence that the principles of auditory scene analysis and evolutionary theories of emotion are critical to a comprehensive theory of musical emotion. We interpret these data in light of a theoretical framework termed “the source dilemma hypothesis,” which predicts that uncertainty in the number, identity or location of sound objects elicits unpleasant emotions by presenting the auditory system with an incoherent percept, thereby motivating listeners to resolve the auditory ambiguity. We describe two experiments in which source location and timbre were manipulated to change uncertainty in the auditory scene. In both experiments, listeners rated tonal and atonal melodies with congruent auditory scene cues as more pleasant than melodies with incongruent auditory scene cues. These data suggest that music’s emotive capacity relies in part on the perceptual uncertainty it produces regarding the auditory scene.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)174-181
Early online date16 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2016


  • Auditory scene analysis
  • dissonance
  • emotion
  • evolution
  • music
  • perceptual uncertainty


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