Do emotions affect preferences to opera music?

Do emotions affect preferences to opera music?

Posted by Jacqueline Martinali on Thu 16 Mar. 2017 - 4 minute read

What does music trigger? What emotions arise as people listen to music or watch a music video? Happiness, sadness, disgust or appreciation perhaps? It depends whether people like or dislike the music, or what they prefer. Personally, hard rock music is a genre I strongly dislike. On the other hand, I can become very happy by hearing a certain pop song. 

Opera is a kind of music that you may or may not appreciate. However, the range of preferences is wide within this genre as well. For instance, there's Western European opera and Chinese opera. As you can imagine, they differ tremendously.

Xi-Qu (戏曲) is an important musical genre in China

Xi-Qu refers to the Chinese music genre formed in the twelfth century. This Chinese opera integrates Chinese literature, drama, singing, instrumental music, acting skills, dance, visual arts, and acrobatics. It is one of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world. 

Accompanied by traditional musical instruments, actors present unique melodies - which may sound strange to foreigners - as well as dialogues which are beautifully written and of high literary value. Different styles of facial make-up and marvelous acrobatics are the most remarkable features.

Comparison to Western European opera

In comparison, Western European opera is a musical art form developed in Western Europe in the sixteenth to the twentieth century, and remains a major genre of classical music. Singing plays a dominant role in portraying the actions and emotions of the characters. 

In traditional opera, singers do two types of singing: recitative, a speech-inflected style, and arias, a more melodic style. Besides music, Western European opera includes drama, poetry, and visual arts.

Music preferences

The purpose of the study Hong Chen conducted at the University of South Florida was to explore the preference of Chinese undergraduate music majors for Chinese Xi-Qu and Western opera. She used audiovisual examples for this. She also studied the reasons for preference, the influence of familiarity on preference, and the relationship between preference ratings and emotions detected by FaceReader

Many researchers are interested in the relationship between facial expressions and music preference. This is the first study that uses FaceReader for music preference and affective response.

Like or dislike

Using a sample of 27 Chinese undergraduate music majors (13 vocalists and 14 instrumentalists), the study intended to provide preliminary information about Xi-Qu preference and reasons for liking or disliking Xi-Qu. This knowledge would help music teachers select appropriate teaching materials at college level, since Xi-Qu and opera have become compulsory teaching content in the Chinese music education. In addition, it would enhance students’ experience with Xi-Qu in class.

What is the relationship between emotions and music preference?

Rigoletto versus Zhongkui

Four Chinese Xi-Qu and four Western opera audiovisual examples were selected as stimuli. The examples covered several singing forms (aria, duet, chorus), and originated from different geographic locations (South and North of China for Xi-Qu examples, and Italy, French, and the United States for the Western opera examples). 

Multiple measures and instruments were utilized to explore the Chinese music majors' music preferences, such as a questionnaire and interviews. FaceReader was used to collect participants' facial expressions while they were watching the stimuli, and was helpful because of its unobtrusive way of measuring.

Items on the questionnaire were related to participants’ level of preference for the stimuli, the most liked and disliked elements of the stimuli, familiarity with the given stimuli, participants’ demographic information, and participants’ music training background. During the interviews, the responses to the questionnaires were further deepened.

The results of the study

According to the findings, the participants generally preferred the Western opera to Chinese Xi-Qu. The outcomes of the most liked and disliked elements showed that singing and acting were always among the top three most liked elements across the four operatic examples, and the top three disliked elements in the operatic examples were all related to visual information. As for the Xi-Qu examples, singing and facial make-up were always among the top three disliked elements. 

Formal training was identified as a major way of gaining familiarity with the Western singing skills and had positive influence on preference for the operatic examples. Watching television together with (grand)parents during childhood and participation into community activities, such as weddings, parties, and the Spring Festival (Chinese new year) were major ways of gaining familiarity with Xi-Qu and had various effect on preference for Xi-Qu.

Participants who did not have extensive experience with Xi-Qu found it hard to evaluate Xi-Qu examples.

Emotional responses to the opera music

The results relating to facial expressions showed that “neutral” was the dominant emotional state across the eight examples. The participants’ self-reported emotional responses confirmed that they didn’t have emotional responses to the examples or only responded just a little bit. “Angry” was the only emotion that correlated to the preference ratings. However, no participant ever reported that they felt “angry” when they were watching any of the examples. 

It is possible that music could provoke more emotions than the seven emotions plus neutral in FaceReader. “Frustrated” could probably better represent negative emotion instead of “angry” in this study. “Happy” was not a reliable indicator of preference in this study, although it could predict the most preferred piece with happy expressed emotions. 

The findings suggest that formal training has a strong influence on the development and shaping of the participants’ taste and attitudes toward Western vocal works and Chinese Xi-Qu. The findings seemed to support the literature that preference for music could be increased by actual teaching.

FREE WHITE PAPER: FaceReader methodology

Download the free FaceReader methodology note to learn more about facial expression analysis theory.

  • How FaceReader works
  • More about the calibration
  • Insight in quality of analysis & output


Chen, H. (2015). Preference of Chinese Undergraduate Music Majors for Chinese Xi-Qu and Western Opera. Graduate Theses and Dissertations, University of South Florida.

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