There is no question that music affects us emotionally. Most of us listen to music for at least some amount of time every day because it makes us feel good. When we go to a movie, we may or may not be aware of the soundtrack, but it is there to heighten the emotional impact of the film. We choose particular music to listen to when we want to cheer ourselves up, and different music when we want to calm ourselves down. Researchers in the fields of neuroscience, biology, psychology, anthropology, and sociology have all studied various aspects of music and emotion.
And whether we are a listener or a performer, we respond emotionally to the music of some composers but not others – to some genres, not others – perhaps to classical, but not heavy metal. Even within the output of a favorite composer, whether it’s Beethoven or John Lennon, we may be very affected by some works, but find that we are indifferent to others. And if we teach an instrument, we’ve all had the experience of having a student learn music more quickly when he feels some sort of emotional connection to the piece.
This is not to say that our musical tastes don’t change, or that music that affected us profoundly when we were teenagers still has that affect a couple of decades later. Our emotional connection to music changes over time, we acquire new tastes, we discard musical tastes that we’ve outgrown. But whatever our tastes in music, it’s interesting to see what happens in the brain when we are listening to music that we like as opposed to music we don’t.
Oliver Sacks is a name that is familiar, no doubt, to all of you. Neurologist, psychologist and writer, he is the author of Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain, as well as numerous other books. In this video clip, researchers put Sacks in an MRI to see the difference in the emotional centers of his brain when he listened to Bach, which he loves, and when he listened to Beethoven, which he doesn’t. The difference is fascinating.