Researchers Discovered Neural Mechanisms Underpinning Emotional Responses To Music

Johannes Van Zijl

Johannes Van Zijl

Johannes has a MSci in Neuroscience from King’s College London and serves as the Managing Director at IFLScience.

Managing Director

Certain music elicits basic emotions with distinct neural representations in the brain. By Semisatch/ 

We are all familiar with the strong emotional experience some music can evoke in us, however until now, it hasn't been clear whether these emotional experiences engage the same neural mechanism as other biologically significant events that elicit strong emotions in the brain.

Now, researchers from the University of Turku, Finland, have discovered that certain music elicits basic emotions with distinct neural representations in the brain. These range from areas in the auditory, motor, and interoception regions, but do not heavily rely on information to areas in the brain critical for emotional control with survival value, such as the limbic and the medial prefrontal cortex regions. 


In the study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, researchers used a machine-learning algorithm to help map out which regions of the brains of 102 participants were activated when they listened to specific music that induced an emotional response. 

While listening to specific music, their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a very sophisticated, but really cool brain scanner. 

How the brains of a hundred volunteers react while listening to Far Beyond the Sun by Yngwie J. Malmsteen.

"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. 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," says postdoctoral researcher on the study Vesa Putkinen in a press release.


Going further, the researchers assessed how different neural mechanisms underpinning emotional responses to watching a film might be. They found that the neural mechanisms underpinning film and music responses in participants are partially different in the brain, with films activating more parts of the limbic system and cortical areas involved in emotional regulation, whereas music did not have the same effect. 

"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."

"We wanted to use only instrumental music in this study as well, so that lyrics did not impact the emotions of the research subjects. However, we included film music and songs by the guitar virtuoso Yngwie J. Malmsteen." notes Putkinen

These sorts of studies normally use classical music, so that lyrics can be eliminated as a potential confounding factor that may influence the emotional state of a participant. As Putkinen noted, they used guitar-based music during their investigation, something not conventionally used in music-brain studies. Although the current study suggests our brain responds differently to music and film and the emotional influence both elicit, more research should be done in the future to confirm this using music generated from different types of instruments.