Monday, February 18, 2013

Music: A Love Story

A blog about how music can shape our emotions and enhance our memories

 Gennarina Riso

 Anyone who knows much about me is aware that I love music. I don’t play any instruments (although I am determined to learn the saxophone someday), but I always have music on at my house and am constantly going to see live shows of all kinds. I was recently watching Bruce Springsteen’s acceptance speech for the 2013 MusiCares Award (see below, if you wish). In his speech, he talked about what a gift being a musician is, and how profound music can be in a person’s life:
 “…music has inspired us and soothed our broken hearts, angered us … music we have gotten married to, divorced to, music that has stood by us on our blackest days, stood by us in war, and in peace. Made us laugh, made us stay strong…”

I know that I can associate certain songs or artists with important times in my life and when I hear them, I feel whatever corresponding emotions that I felt at the time of the event. For example, whenever I hear “The Way You Look Tonight” by Frank Sinatra, I am immediately 8 years old again, dancing with my little sister by the campfire in Big Sur. Or when I hear “Rosalita” by Bruce Springsteen, I am a teenager, in my mom’s minivan on the way to school, secretly enjoying the music but outwardly acting embarrassed by my mom’s dancing and singing.  And there are a thousand other such moments, some lighthearted, and some extremely personal.  All of this got me thinking: there must be some kind of physiological reason that music can have such a profound effect on us. There must be some reason that thousands of strangers are able to separately arrive to a concert, seemingly having nothing in common, but while the music is playing, their differences dissolve -- during that time, they become connected by the music, regardless of age or background.

Figure 1. Bruce Springsteen asking (I imagine) his classic question of his audience: “Is there anybody alive out there?!”

I think it is interesting to note that as I was researching the connection between music and emotions, I found that psychologists and scientists alike have a hard time defining and agreeing upon what exactly emotions are. Are they primarily a person’s subjective feelings regarding the significance of an event? Are they rooted in physiological functions, such as activation of the autonomic nervous system? And how can emotions be defined in an objective sense when they are so closely connected to our mood and well-being?

Studies involving emotions have given results that are all over the map; some show that depressed people tend to remember more unpleasant words from a conversation, while other studies have shown the complete opposite. This issue becomes further complicated by the fact that some people believe we have a set list of discrete emotions (such as happy, sad, scared, etc.), while others think we have more of an “emotional continuum” that is much more complex. In addition, researchers who study music and emotions have been careful to make a distinction between a person’s perceived emotional response to music and their actual personal emotional response. In other words, does hearing a sad song actually make you feel sad, or are you just recognizing the sadness of the musician?

Scientists who think it is possible for music to conjure real emotions in listeners have created a list of possible mechanisms/explanations for this reaction. Of these, there are three that stand out to me from a physiological perspective:

-Brain stem reflexes in which our brains naturally respond to certain aspects of music such as volume or tempo.
-Emotional contagion, which describes a situation where the listener utilizes empathy-related pathways in order to feel an emotion that is portrayed by a song.
-Episodic memory refers to the phenomenon in which songs cause us to recall a certain event in our lives, much like I described above.

In a study conducted by Trost, et al., subjects (who all stated that they enjoyed classical music) listened to a grouping of songs and then were asked to categorize how the songs made them feel and how strongly, given a list of 9 words: Joy, Sadness, Tension, Wonder, Peacefulness, Power, Tenderness, Nostalgia, and Transcendence. The subjects then had to rate their arousal (in terms of how calm they felt), valence (how pleasant or unpleasant they felt) and familiarity while listening to the music. These responses were all grouped together before fMRI images were taken while the subjects listened to the music. (Note: they stated that they removed familiarity from their images because it did not affect results and only made interpretation of the data more confusing).
What they show is very interesting, although not entirely surprising. Much of the time, regions of the brain associated with the limbic system or paralimbic system were stimulated while listening to this music. Something that was interesting if not surprising surprising to me, however, was that people’s “subjective” associations actually were mirrored with their scans. For example, the A+/V+ association, or highly aroused, highly pleasant associations, illustrated that sounds that subjects associated with “wonder” and “power” corresponded to stimulation of the motor cortex, while “joy” tended to stimulate the hippocampus. In addition, music associated with high pleasantness or high valence also stimulated both the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens, which as we know from learning about nicotine, is associated strongly with rewards pathways in the brain that lead to very real physiological responses. I found this particularly amusing, as I immediately thought of the song “Cold Hard Bitch” by Jet, and how I was listening to that song as I crossed the finish line during a half-marathon – talk about associating power with motor cortex stimulation!

Figure 2. fMRI images corresponding to subjective emotional responses to music. 

But what about music that has lyrics? Classical music is commonly used in studies involving music and emotion because it generally alleviates the possible confounding variable of the effect that lyrics coupled with music might have on emotion. Studies have shown that songs with lyrics activate language centers in the brain as well as the superior and inferior temporal gyri, which are associated with processing of sound, speech, and even face perception, speaking to how music can literally stimulate parts of the brain that allow us to feel empathy and relate to others. fMRI images have shown that instrumental music tends to enhance activity in areas of the brain associated with emotional control (such as the singulate gyrus and prefrontal cortex) in comparison with music containing lyrics. 

Figure 3. Comparison of brain activity in response to music with lyrics and basic emotions. 

All of this information made me wonder if there is a place in medicine for music therapy. While I focused my research on both the effects of music treatment on cognition in Alzheimer’s patients and patients with traumatic brain injury, I found an overwhelming volume of studies that (apparently) show promising results for music treatment for people with Autism, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, and others.

Music therapy for individuals with varying levels of dementia is not a new concept, as there is much well documented evidence that people are able to better express their emotions through music despite the deterioration of their ability to express themselves through speech. For example, it has been shown at weekly group singing exercises in people with various types of dementia have positive results. Patients were able to learn new songs, sing in complex rounds, and even whistle or dance to the music when speech was not possible. Further, caregivers noticed that these patients enjoyed sitting in circles when singing so they could make eye contact with their peers, presumably allowing them to make greater emotional connections that way. Families also reported that throughout these exercises, patients became progressively more alert and confident.

Similarly, studies have shown that after several sessions with a certified music therapist, people with traumatic brain injury show significant improvements to their levels of confidence, depression, and levels of hostility. I think it would be very interesting to study the long term effects of music therapy and neurogenesis on patients with neurological injury, as they presumably would show greater improvements in memory and cognation after they feel more confident and less helpless. 

Figure 4. A group of elderly people enjoying music together.

So, when Bruce Springsteen refers to music as magic, he is not entirely incorrect; our bodies have actual physiological responses to musical sound, but the larger than life effects of that music still seem a bit mystical. It appears that by recognizing the physiological link between music and emotions, and integrating this knowledge into research and treatment, great strides can be made in enhancing the functionality of music therapy. 


Vuoskoski, Jonna K. "Emotions Represented and Induced by Music." Diss. University of Jyväskylä, 2012. Abstract. (n.d.): n. pag. Print.

Trost, W., T. Ethofer, M. Zentner, and P. Vuilleumier. 2011. Mapping Aesthetic Musical Emotions in the Brain. Cerebral Cortex. Web.

Bannan, N. and C. Montgomery-Smith. 2008. `Singing for the Brain': reflections on the human capacity for music arising from a pilot study of group singing with Alzheimer's patients. The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health 128: 73-78.
Nakahara, H., S. Furuya, S. Obata, T. Masuko, and H. Kinoshita. 2009. Emotion-related Changes in Heart Rate and Its Variability during Performance and Perception of Music. The Neurosciences and Music III: Disorders and Plasticity 1169: 359-362.
 Thaut, M., J. Gardiner, D. Holmberg, J. Horwitz, L. Kent, G. Andrews, B. Donelan, and G. McIntosh. 2009. Neurologic Music Therapy Improves Executive Function and Emotional Adjustment in Traumatic Brain Injury Rehabilitation. The Neurosciences and Music III: Disorders and Plasticity 1169: 406-416.
Brattico, E., V. Alluri, B. Bogert, T. Jacobsen, N. Vartiainen, S. Nieminen, and M. Tervaniemi. 2011. A functional MRI study of happy and sad emotions in music with and without lyrics. Frontiers in Psychology. Web.

1 comment:

  1. I love all the different aspects of music that you touched on Gennarina! Clearly, music affects our brains in complex and multifaceted ways that we will probably never fully understand. It can definitely be therapeutic, however, and I wish we would turn to things like music more readily than pills. As an anecdote to add to the examples you gave, my grandma has Alzheimer's and one of the few things she still remembers (and that clearly gives her joy) are the songs she learned in church as a little girl.