How the Brain Processes Music Thereby Evoking Positive Emotions

Author(s): Sheima Farjah

Mentor(s): Maoria Kirker, University Libraries


This project investigates how music is processed by the brain to stimulate positive emotions. Multiple studies were analyzed in this presentation to understand how researchers have conducted their experiments to understand music and the brain. This review discusses the structure of music and how emotions can be created through music. The methods, data collection, and results were of previous studies were presented and compared to establish an overall conclusion as to how emotion is evoked. Lastly, it is portrayed how I would continue this research and what modification would be made to understand more of the music’s impact on the brain. 

Video Transcript

Hello, my name is Sheima Farjah and I will be presenting my research about the influence of music on the brain. Specifically, my research question is how does the brain process music thereby evoking positive emotions?

There are many components that are significant in creating a song such as pitch, rhythm, tempo, melody, etc. When we listen to music, it goes through our ears where there are hair cells. Depending on the pitch  of the music, specific hair cells will fire off. The activity in our ears sends signals to the auditory cortex, which is the part of the brain that processes information through hearing.  Different parts of the auditory cortex will respond to different pitches, which is why pitch is important as it relays the mood and emotion of the song.

One way music can also elicit emotion is through the concept of violation of expectation which increases feelings of anticipation. Composers create music knowing that the brain has certain expectations of the patterns within a song. From previous experience in listening to music, the brain has learned that certain notes go together. And while listening to music, the brain is constantly making predictions about how the song will carry on. Therefore, when the song deviates from what the brain expects this can create a pleasurable experience and the increase of dopamine in the brain. 

To conduct these studies, groups of participants were chosen based on certain qualities such as the amount of musical training and age.  For all of these studies, participants chose certain songs that gave them pleasure. During the listening experience, scans of the subjects brains were taken to be later analyzed. All of the studies I reviewed incorporated some sort of rating system usually from 1-10 for the participants to relay how pleasurable their listening experience was. This system is a limitation as pleasure is subjective and can be quantified differently on the rating scale. These limitations will be addressed in my research proposal and alternatives methods will be provided. 

In the studies I reviewed fMRI and PET scans were used, all the researchers incorporated one or both of these technologies. The fMRi scans the brain to illustrate where blood moves in the brain. Similarly, The PET scan takes images of the brain, but it also looks at where neurons are firing within the brain. Through this technology, researchers can understand at what point and where the brain is activated during a song, potentially relaying the pleasurable effects a person feels. 

The fMRI and PET scans produced similar data as scientists analyzed certain periods of time in the music where listeners were anticipating or becoming more excited. As a result of this anticipation, listeners felt chills, which is a result of positive emotion. Also, from the data collection, dopamine increased in the nucleus accumbens, when feelings of anticipation increased.  When music is listened to, it can be seen that various parts of the brain such as the auditory and frontal cortex are working in assessing music and creating a positive or negative reaction. Overall, a pattern found amongst all studies was as feelings of anticipation increases, the number of chills increases, and a greater amount of dopamine is produced. 

In my study, I would like to explore various genres and songs of different frequencies on subjects to stimulate positive emotions. Through this, similar technologies such as the fMRI and pet scan will be used. However, instead of participants rating their level of happiness, a questionnaire will be given instead to allow full analysis of subjects reactions. Additionally, while listening to music,  subjects will press a button whenever strong emotions are experienced. Thank you for listening!

3 replies on “How the Brain Processes Music Thereby Evoking Positive Emotions”

Really interesting concept. I was wondering how music selection might be accounted for? For example, some people prefer heavy metal, and others find it abrasive. So, some people may have a pleasurable listening experience while others may not. Perhaps instead of individual selection, each participant can listen to a randomized selection comprised of songs from three distinct genres? Looking forward to “hearing” more about it 🙂

What an interesting idea for a project. One of my favorite genres is barbershop music. The peak of a barbershop song that often causes a visceral reaction in listeners (and the singers) is often when singers hold a “tension” cord without resolving it. Your brain wants the resolution. It’s so cool when done well.

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