The Neurobiology of Music and Emotions

The Neurobiology of Music and Emotions


The Neurobiology of Music and Emotions

Have you ever wondered why a classical musical piece like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake makes you feel completely different than when you listen to the beats of Indian Classical Music? Surely, one day, it’s because it’s different kinds of music. But at the end of the day, they are just that, musical beats. Then, why does one musical beat feel different than the other? It’s highly likely that as a musician or music lover, you’ve asked yourself these questions. Music works on the human brain in one of the most fascinating ways.

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Today, we venture into the amazing neurobiology behind music and how it affects our moods and emotions. Psychology studies the human mind and behavior and when we look into the context of music, we are trying to study the effect of music on the human mind. It asks questions like —Can music heal? Why does music evoke certain emotions?

Historical Significance of Music and Emotion

Music has been with us since the very first moments of our lives. As a form of lullaby, as entertainment, and much more. Music is also as old as time itself. It has been an integral part of many cultures and continues evolving even today. Emotion and mood have also been labeled as an integral part of understanding music. Greek philosophers, in ancient times, have always emphasized the importance of music and how it can have both positive and negative effects on an individual’s character and well as physical attributes (Freeman, 2000).

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Factors Influencing Emotional Responses to Music

The connection between music and emotions has been fairly obvious for scientific inquiry. Researchers have always noticed how the tonality of the musical note is often associated with certain emotions. For example, low and somber timbers are always used for melancholy and serious-themed music, while higher and more upbeat notes are for lighter and fun music genres. Alternatively, the tempo of the song also affects the mood difficult. Slower tempos evoke a sense of introspection and sadness while faster tempos create happiness and make one feel lighter. These dynamics allow the music composers to have a wide range of feelings through the arrangement of different notes.

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According to Kreutz and colleagues (2012), four key musical factors stand out for triggering emotions: tempo, consonance, timbre, and loudness. For instance, the tempo might even affect our heart rate and overall cardiovascular response. Similarly, crescendo i.e. music that gradually increases in loudness, can create a sense of tension in the body. The volume and loudness of music can also affect how the nervous system and hormones react.

Let us explore the connection between music and emotions and how it affects our brains simultaneously.

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The Nature-Nurture Debate: Are Emotional Responses to Music Learned or Innate?

The relationship between music and emotions has also been up for debate. Some believe that the emotional responses to music are learned, while others believe that it is innate and simply how our brains are wired. This is the classic nature-nurture debate. The overall emotional experience in the context of music is a fairly complex process and not just instant feelings (like a quick automatic reaction). They take place over time and are linked to dynamic changes in the activities of our body and brain. When we listen to music, we often experience “chills” (because of how intense our emotional response is to music). This is also because of the release of chemicals that are responsible for making us feel good. All these activities in the brain signify to us that an emotional response to music is a complex process and not just a reflex/quick response. At the same time, our “liking” for a particular type of music can also be due to exposure effects.

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In simple terms, if we listen to a song/musical piece repeatedly, we tend to like it more. Many researchers believe that emotional responses to music share similarities with emotional responses in vision and speech. Scientists use introspective, behavioral, and physiological measurements like heart rate and skin responses to understand these reactions. When a binocular listening task was performed (a task where the subject is given a pleasant tone to listen to in one ear and an unpleasant tone in the second ear), it was found that the right hemisphere played a role in recognizing the emotional tone of the music. This research suggests that certain hemispheres of the brain are more involved in the emotional processing of music than others.

Music has a powerful impact on our emotions, leading to what’s called emotional contagion. For instance, when we listen to “happy” music, it activates the zygomatic muscle, making us smile—additionally, our skin conductance (how our skin reacts) and breathing rate increase. On the flip side, “sad” music triggers the corrugator muscle, associated with frowning. What’s intriguing is that there’s a resemblance between how emotions are expressed in Western music and the emotional tones in spoken language, known as affective prosody (Koelsch, 2014).

Read More: Why Do We Listen to Sad Music?

Brain Imaging Studies: Unraveling the Impact of Music on Emotion

When scientists use brain imaging techniques like fMRI and PET scans, they find that music has a direct impact on certain brain areas linked to emotions. Two key players are the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens (NAc). The nucleus accumbens is like a control center for our feelings—it’s involved in pleasure, reward, laughter, fear, aggression, impulsivity, and even addiction. So, music can influence these core emotional brain structures. Different genres of music activate different areas of the brain. Research studies show that the posterior cingulate cortex is active when melodies that bring displeasure are presented to an individual (Tramo, 2001).

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Certain parts of the brain, like the amygdala, are more active when we hear music that feels pleasant or joyful. These brain regions are connected, and they work together more strongly when we listen to joyful music compared to music that makes us feel scared. In brain imaging studies using fMRI (Koelsch et al., 2006), researchers found changes in the amygdala, ventral striatum, and hippocampus when people listened to joyful music, even without experiencing “chills” or intense feelings.

In a different study, when people listened to unpleasant music, there was an increase in activity in the amygdala and hippocampus. Another experiment used PET (Blood and Zatorre, 2001) scans while people listened to their favorite music to induce “chills” or shivers down the spine. The brain regions associated with reward and emotion, like the nucleus accumbens and certain parts of the cortex, showed increased activity with more intense chills. However, the amygdala and parts of the hippocampus showed decreased activity (Koelsch and Stegemann, 2012). These findings show that music can directly affect key emotion-related brain areas. This information supports efforts in music therapy, where using music to treat conditions like depression and anxiety is explored, as these disorders are thought to involve problems in the amygdala and potentially the hippocampus.

References +
  • Koelsch, S., & Stegemann, T. (2012). The brain and positive biological effects in healthy and clinical populations. In R. A. R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health, and wellbeing (pp. 436–456). Oxford University Press.
  • Koelsch, S., Fritz, T., v. Cramon, D.Y., Müller, K. and Friederici, A.D. (2006), Investigating emotion with music: An fMRI study. Hum. Brain Mapp., 27: 239-250.
  • Tramo M. J. (2001). Biology and music. Music of the hemispheres. Science (NewYork, N.Y.), 291(5501), 54–56.
  • Koelsch, S. Brain correlates of music-evoked emotions. Nat Rev Neurosci 15, 170–180 (2014).
  • Trimble, M., & Hesdorffer, D. (2017). Music and the brain: the neuroscience of music and musical appreciation. BJPsych international, 14(2), 28–31.

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