Everyone reacts slightly differently to music, and a new study has found evidence that our emotional responses to tuneful stimuli may be controlled by our genes. Publishing their work in the journal Neuroscience, the study authors reveal how people with a particular variation of a specific gene actually get bummed out by music, while those with another variant become elated when they hear it.
Many of our emotions are at least partially regulated by a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is particularly active in the brain’s reward circuit, producing feelings of joy and pleasure. The researchers therefore decided to investigate how the genes that code for a dopamine receptor called the D2 receptor affect people’s feelings when listening to music.
For their study, they recruited 38 participants, 26 of whom turned out to be carrying a variation of the D2 gene known as the GG variant, while the other 12 carried the GT variant.
All subjects underwent a mood assessment test both before and after listening to music, with carriers of the GG variant experiencing an improvement in their mood while those with the GT form of the gene suffered a worsening of their emotional state.
Next, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brain activity of their volunteers as they looked at pictures of emotional faces while listening to music.
During this phase of the task, GG carriers showed a decrease in activity in a brain region called the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) whenever they saw an angry or threatening face. The IFG is known to be involved in the regulation of emotions and the interpretation of social signals, and is heavily influenced by dopamine.
Because of this, the study authors conclude that in GG carriers, dopamine helps to shut off activity in the IFG when music is heard, causing an elevation in mood and preventing negative feelings from arising.
In contrast, carriers of the GT variant showed decreased activity in a brain region called the striatum when viewing angry or threatening faces in the presence of music, which appeared to have the exact opposite effect.
Taken together, these results suggest that variations in D2 receptor genes have a significant impact on our ability to process emotions while listening to music, and goes some way towards explaining why we find music so moving.