Music and the mind

Music can have an overwhelmingly strong hold on the human mind, dramatically swaying our emotions and evoking memories. How come? The new issue of Scientific American Mind surveys recent research on music and the mind. For example, the power of music may come from its influence on regions of the brain responsible for language, feelings, movement, and other unrelated systems. It could also be an important vehicle for emotional communication and connection from which societies emerge. The article looks at studies supporting such theories. From SciAm Mind:

The musical tongue may also transcend more fundamental communication barriers. In studies conducted over the past decade, cognitive psychologist Pam Heaton of Goldsmiths, University of London, and her research team played music for both autistic and nonautistic children, comparing those with similar language skills, and asked the kids to match the music to emotions. In the initial studies, the kids simply chose between happy and sad. In later studies, Heaton and her colleagues introduced a range of complex emotions, such as triumph, contentment and anger, and found that the kids' ability to recognize these feelings in music did not depend on their diagnosis. Autistic and typical children with similar verbal skills performed equally well, indicating that music can reliably convey feelings even in people whose ability to pick up emotion-laden social cues, such as facial expressions or tone of voice, is severely compromised.

Recently, in a clever experiment, acoustics scientist Roberto Bresin and his co-workers at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm garnered quantitative support for the idea that music is a universal language. Instead of asking volunteers to make subjective judgments about a piece of music, scientists asked them to manipulate the song–in particular, its tempo, volume and phrasing–to maximize a given emotion. For a happy song, for instance, a participant was supposed to manipulate these variables by adjusting sliders so that the song sounded as cheerful as possible; then as sad as possible; then scary, peaceful and neutral.

The researchers found that the participants–expert musicians and, in another study, seven-year-old children–all landed on the same tempo for each song to bring out its intended emotion, be it happiness, sadness, fear or tranquility. These findings, which Bresin reported at the 2008 Neuromusic III conference in Montreal, bolster the idea that music contains information that elicits a specific emotional response in the brain regardless of personality, taste or training. As such, music may constitute a unique form of communication.

"Why Music Moves Us"