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The 50 emotional shades of music

Alice Mado Proverbio, University of Milan-Bicocca

Different musical styles and tones have a different impact on our mood and produce physiological responses related to emotions. As described in “NEUROSCIENZE COGNITIVE DELLA MUSICA” (Zanichelli, 2019), music can induce the most varied emotional sensations, activating partly separate neural circuits.
The music used in nature documentaries (in a major key) induces a sense of WONDER that activates the ventral striatum (reward) and the hippocampus (memory).

Typical war movie music makes us feel HEROIC and TRIUMPHANT, activating the ventral striatum and the motor cortex (action).
Romantic music induces a sense of NOSTALGIA, activating the hippocampus.
Listening to sad music increases our levels of prolactin, which is comforting, like breast milk. The rhythm of music stimulates the movement centres and prompts us to dance. Listening to our favourite music stimulates the neural centres associated with reward.

In a psychophysiological study, we analysed people’s reactions to listening to music that conveyed joy, pathos or tension.

Dissonant (atonal) music lowered the heart rate and increased blood pressure (bradycardia caused by fear), inducing a response of parasympathetic alertness due to its intrinsic threatening and agitating properties. This type of music is often used as a soundtrack in thriller/horror films that use various expedients to frighten the audience (e.g., unresolved dissonances, timbral experimentation, recontextualisation of a familiar snippet, atonality, sudden shocking chords, repetitive drones, sudden changes in intensity, unpredictability).

In a subsequent study, we showed how emotionally poignant music increases participants’ brain activity and improves the ability to recognise faces. Participants looked at the faces of hundreds of characters with a different background sound (rain noise, silence, and Tchaikovsky) while their EEG was recorded. Listening to heart-rending music enhanced the memory of the faces associated with it by activating regions of the brain involved in the absorption of audio-visual information. The emotional content of the music made otherwise insignificant faces unforgettable.

What are the ingredients of music that people like?

In a recent study, described in “NEUROSCIENZE COGNITIVE DELLA MUSICA”, we measured the aesthetic appreciation of music by Piazzolla and Stravinsky in a heterogeneous group of people. Listeners were able to indicate how their appreciation changed while listening by moving a controller up or down. Twenty passages that people considered to be the best or the worst of the two pieces were identified. The musical passages selected were examined by 12 professional composers who were asked to score each fragment (on a scale of 1 to 10), considering the following dimensions: tonal/atonal, neutral/moving, calming/agitating, sad/joyous, slow/fast, rhythmic/melodious, simple/complex in rhythm, harmony, performance, boring/interesting, banal/original, prosaic/sublime, traditional/innovative.

The results showed how the musical fragments perceived as “the best” were more tonal, traditional, melodious, sad, calm, slow and simple, recalling a melancholic emotional state similar to tenderness/serenity (e.g., neo-melodic music). By contrast “the worst” musical fragments were characterised by atonality, originality, agitation, innovation and complexity. These characteristics invoke a heightened state of tension.

People, music, emotions concept. Delighted carefree female with Afro hairstyle dances in rhythm of melody, closes eyes listens loud song in headphones, holds smart phone has fun. Yellow color prevails

Why is Albinoni’s adagio sad and the Boogie Woogie happy?

It depends on pitch and rhythm. The ability to interpret the emotional tone of music is present in very young children, who are already able to distinguish a consonant piece from a dissonant one at birth. Their brains are in fact programmed to understand the meaning of vocalisations (crying, shouting, laughter) by recognising their emotional significance. For example, they know that laughter is positive, while crying is negative.

Studies that have analysed the acoustic spectrum of speech find that expressions of sadness use intervals typical of the minor key, while joy uses the major key. Consequently, our brain interprets music as if it were speech and innately understands its emotional meaning. To find out more.

  • Proverbio, AM. (2019). Neuroscienze Cognitive della Musica. Ed. Zanichelli
  • Proverbio, A.M., Piotti, E. (2021). Common neural bases for processing speech prosody and music: An integrated model. Psychology of Music.
  • Proverbio AM, De Benedetto F. (2018). Auditory enhancement of visual memory encoding is driven by emotional content of the auditory material and mediated by superior frontal cortex. Biol Psychol.,132, 164-175.
  • Proverbio AM, Manfrin L, Arcari LA, De Benedetto F, Gazzola M, Guardamagna M, Lozano Nasi V, Zani A. (2015). Non-expert listeners show decreased heart rate and increased blood pressure (fear bradycardia) in response to atonal music. Front Psychol., 28;6:1646.
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