What music triggers YOUR brain’s emotional center?

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.

SacksOliver 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.



8 responses to “What music triggers YOUR brain’s emotional center?”

  1. Lyle Sanford Avatar

    That’s wonderful – thanks for posting. For me it conforms my notion that it doesn’t matter what other people think of a piece of music – if it works for you, that’s all that matters. The universality of music is that it communicates – not that it communicates the same thing to everyone.

    1. Lois Avatar

      Absolutely. I readily admit that some music is like a foreign language to me, but obviously it is communicating to someone else.

      1. Lyle Sanford Avatar

        Like Bruce, I would love to know what that Bach piece is.

        Also, down the road, when the imaging gets better and easier, my guess is that different genres of music will light up subtly different areas (along with a lot of overlap) in the people who get this full response – and it will be fascinating to see what those differences say about how different genres affect us.

  2. Bruce Avatar

    Eurika! I found a way to play a 4 minute video which may be the one you refer to. The Bach choral piece that Sach preferred and lit his brain, caused chills of emotion to me. I wonder if you can tell me what the composition is as I would like to hear more. I twice had a similar effect of being moved to tears from some unknow Bach organ music I once accidentally heard being played organists practicing in chapels in Germany and Wisconsin. I have looked all my life but never identified them. Any hints as to what they might have been would be much appreciated.

    1. Lois Avatar

      I’m sorry to say that I don’t know what the Bach excerpt is, Bruce, but I will see if I can find out.

  3. loren.amacher@facebook.com Avatar

    The overtonal singing that Jackson Hill posted on FB the other day was a genre I had never heard, although there were real parallels with the music of a Bulgarian women’s chorus that visited Bucknell a few years ago. I suspected that it might be a derivation of what was originally, and long ago, a long-distance means of communication. Great post, again!

  4. ML Brinkman Avatar
    ML Brinkman

    The Bach excerpt is from the B Minor Mass, the Et Incarnatus Est movement. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCurcXycaF4

    Since this is music with words, how does knowing the text and its translation affect your emotional response to the music? Would it have been any different if the music was purely instrumental? For me, I love Bach and Beethoven equally, but I was more moved by the Bach excerpt in the NOVA video. I’ve sung the B Minor Mass before. As a Christian and musician, the subject matter of the B Minor Mass and Bach’s setting of it make listening to it a powerful emotional experience. I’m not sure that I would have had such a strong emotional response to the Bach if I didn’t know the translation of the text.

    Also, the particular Beethoven excerpt didn’t sound like typical Beethoven to me. I realize the excerpt was chosen to sound musically similar to the Bach. However, it seems unfair to pick something that sounds so generic and un-Beethovenian to represent Beethoven in the experiment.

    1. Lois Avatar

      Hi, Thanks for the ID. I’m sure that knowing the text and translation does affect emotional response. But the scan of Sacks’s brain while listening to Bach shows activation in both the areas having to do with processing of music as well as the amygdala, which has to do with processing of emotions. So it is showing activity in response to both. And Sacks’s comments seems to indicate that he is listening primarily to the music – he mentions the entrance of the soprano and the harmonic modulation. In contrast there was little activity in the Beethoven – either in the music processing areas of the brain or in the emotional center. In the second part of the experiment, I think the whole point of choosing that particular Beethoven was because it was un-Beethoven-like, and the researchers wanted to see how the brain would respond when Sacks was not able to easily recognize the excerpts. And they proved their point. The brain knew which was Bach, even if Sacks didn’t, which I find extremely fascinating.