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Music and Emotional Responses in the Brain

Antonia J's picture

Music is an integral part of human existence. People have made and listened to music for centuries. Different rhythms and tones evoke different responses in different people – while someone may feel nostalgia upon hearing a certain song or piece of music, someone else may feel happiness, sadness, or anger. However, relatively little research has been done until recently regarding how music affects the brain – what parts of the brain process it, if different kinds of music activate different parts of the brain, why music evokes an emotional response – to name only a few questions.

Studying the brain’s function in emotions was very popular in the early twentieth century. However, with the advent of cognitive approaches to psychology, interest in emotion died out somewhat in the scientific community. Emotions seemed too subjective a topic to study in a scientific manner (1). However, once scientists realized that, although some emotions are conscious, many emotional responses are unconscious and the brain’s activity can thus be traced (1). Thus, the research into emotions has resurged.

To understand music’s impact on emotions and the brain, it is important to first have a basic understanding of what parts of the brain regulate emotion, and if separate parts of the brain regulate different emotions. Recent research suggests that there are numerous brain systems responsible for emotional responses, and there are specific systems for different basic emotions (2). However, although the systems are distinct, Panksepp and Bernatzky argue that many parts of the brain participate simultaneously in responding to music (2). They also argue that music has an even stronger impact on us than visual cues do, because it affects the brain more directly (2). The part of the brain that is most commonly associated with emotion is the amygdala. There is actually a system, consisting of three different parts of the prefrontal cortex that are connected to the amygdala, that is thought to be responsible for emotions. The parts of the brain that are involved - the the dorsolateral, the medial, and the orbitofrontal cortex - are thought to regulate decision-making and negative emotions, as well assessing the appropriate emotional response to a situation (3).

It is logical to conclude that these parts of the brain may have something to do with the processing of music that results in an emotional response. Some research suggests that both the right and left hemispheres of the brain are responsible for processing music, and that the temporal lobe is also involved, although it is unclear how (4). It does seem clear, however, that many of the parts of the brain that music activates are associated with responding to rewarding stimuli, and are implicated in the process of addiction and the hunger drive (5). This fact is particularly interesting to me. I find it fascinating that music can be so closely connected to the areas that are responsible for addiction. It obviously makes me wonder if you can become addicted to music (silly idea, I know!).

Although relatively little is known about music’s effects on the brain, there is a lot of research being conducted regarding this. I’m sure there will be a lot more information about this, even within the next year or two. Although I understand now that certain parts of the brain are activated when music is played, and that this is why we respond emotionally to music, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around this. The response people have to music is so strong, and I find it so wonderful. Thinking that emotional responses are completely related to the brain makes it a little hard for me, because I like to have an element of mystery about things that are this personal and individual to each person. But then, this knowledge about the brain makes music and emotions all the more interesting, and I can’t wait to learn more about it.


Works Cited

1., “Emotion Circuits in the Brain.” by Joseph E. DeLoux

2., “Emotional Sounds and the Brain: The Neuro-Affective Foundations of Musical Appreciation”  by Jaak Panksepp and Gunther Bernatzky.

3., “Scientists Uncover New Clues about Brain Function in Human Behavior.”

4., “The Musical Brain.”

5., "Brain Organization for Music Processing" by Isabelle Peretz and Robert J. Zatorre.  


Bernd Willimek's picture

music and emotions

There is a new theory - called "Strebetendenz-Theory" - which can explain, why different chords evoces different emotions. It says - listening music - we identify with a anonymous will, similary we identify with protagonists in daramatic films. In this way you can explain, why major chords sound happy, but you can explain the exceptions too, when major chords sound painful or wistful. Also you can explain, when minor chords don't sound sad, but brave or angry. If ou want to know more, you can download the essay "Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their feelings"

ALLAN's picture

cultural & emotion

Do different cultures react to music differently emotionaly ? To me there seems to be kind of a universal sounds of music that is
sad /happy etc . Is there any truth this or do different cultures and people react differently emotionally to different types of music ??
One would eliminate certain music because of meaning it might have- our national anthem might make us feel pride - not so much for those living in Irag.


Charmie Jung's picture


I am amused at how cognitive amusia exists in some people. Oftentimes, people afflicted with this aren't even aware.
I hope I could use some ideas from your article in my report. Don't worry- credits go to you. :)

Lee's picture

Music and the Brain

Please see this :

Is there a syndrome concerning people who hyperreact emotionally to music?