Your favourite songs influence your mood and personality as much as they influence specific areas of your brain. A study from the University of Turku, published in Cerebral Cortex, finds that listening to instrumental music activates different parts of the brain depending on the emotion of the music. These patterns are distinct from what a person would experience in real-life situations.

In their study, Vesa Putkinson and her team wanted to examine the following:  

  1. 1. Do music-induced emotions and video-induced emotions activate the brain’s emotion circuit in similar ways? 
  2. 2. Are the emotional responses that music evokes organized in the brain?

Videos mimic real-life situations; this means they can be used to map neural circuits involved in emotions during real-life situations. The researchers focused on the following emotions: happiness, sadness, tenderness, and fear.

Each of the 102 participants listened to 18 45-second excerpts of emotional, instrumental music in a random order. The participants also viewed 96 clips from movies depicting positive emotions, negative emotions, or no emotion. These clips lasted for 20 minutes. During both of these conditions, Prukinson and her team measured the participants’ brain activity.

Their main finding was that each of the four music-induced emotions had a distinct neural pattern in the auditory and motor cortices. The motor cortex controls voluntary movement. The auditory cortex helps the brain process sound.

“Based on the activation of the auditory and motor cortex, we were able to accurately predict whether the research subject was listening to happy or sad music,” says Purkinson. “The auditory cortex processes the acoustic elements of music, such as rhythm and melody. Activation of the motor cortex, then again, may be related to the fact that music inspires feelings of movement in the listeners even when they are listening to music while holding still in an MRI machine.”

The videos, which simulate real-life events, activated numerous regions in the brain that associate with emotion, such as the brainstem, amygdala, and the orbitofrontal cortex. There were certain brain areas that the videos strongly activated, but the music only weakly activated.

“Films, for instance, activate the deeper parts of the brain that regulate emotions in real-life situations. Listening to music did not strongly activate these regions nor did their activation separate the music-induced emotions from each other. This may be due to the fact that films can more realistically copy the real-life events that evoke emotions and thus activate the innate emotion mechanisms. 

“As for the music-induced emotions, they are based on the acoustic characteristics of music and coloured by cultural influences and personal history.”

The researchers conclude their study by proposing that people may “interpret their subjective responses to music in terms of basic emotion categories,” however, “these feelings may only partially rely on the same neural machinery as prototypical basic emotion.”

On the original article from the university’s website, the researchers mentions the group is now conducting a study on “music-induced emotions in the body.”

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