Researchers wanted to know how listening to music acts in the brain to arouse emotions. They then discovered that it was possible to predict the style of music heard just by observing certain areas of the brain.

Music provokes emotions, but what exactly is happening to our brains at that moment? By asking this question, researchers from the University of Turku (Finland) have discovered what types of neural mechanisms are at the base of the emotional responses linked to music. In total, 102 people took part in their study published in the journal “Cerebral Cortex”, agreeing to listen to several pieces of music evoking different types of emotions (happy, sad, fearful and tender) while their brain function was scanned thanks to a brain imaging technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

“Music can induce a strong subjective experience of emotions, but one wonders whether these responses engage the same neural circuits as emotions provoked by other events. “, Explain the researchers. In parallel, they used a machine learning algorithm to map the regions of the brain that are activated when the different emotions induced by music are separated from each other. They then discovered that two regions of the brain come into play when the person listens to happy or sad music: the auditory cortex and the motor cortex, which work together to hear a sound or a word.

A difference with the movies

  Specifically, the auditory cortex processes the acoustic elements of music, such as rhythm and melody. Activation of the motor cortex is caused by the fact that “music inspires sensations of movement in listeners, even when they listen to music while standing still in an MRI machine. », Emphasizes researcher Vesa Putkinen. The researchers also found out which regions of the brain are activated when study participants watched videos that evoke strong emotions like sadness, and wanted to know if these are the same regions as when they listened to music. music evocative of emotions. 

It turns out that the emotions caused by movies and music are in part based on how different mechanisms work in the brain. Movies, for example, activate the deepest parts of the brain that regulate emotions in real-life situations: the limbic system, which is involved in emotional processing. Listening to music, however, did not strongly activate these same regions. The hypothesis put forward by the research team is that “this may be because films can more realistically 'copy' real-life events that evoke emotions and thus activate innate emotional mechanisms. " 

As for the emotions induced by music, the finding is different because they are based on the acoustic characteristics of the music but also in connection with cultural influences and the person's own personal history. But the researchers say they only used instrumental music so that the lyrics didn't impact the participants' emotions. “Our results indicate that different basic music-induced emotions have distinct representations in regions supporting auditory processing and motor control but do not rely heavily on brain regions essential for emotions with survival value. », They conclude.