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We are musical being.

Music is a form of expression that binds us in a way that language rarely does.
Music moves us and stirs up our deepest emotions. But how? And which elements of music play a role in this interaction?

This article aims to explore emotions in music and will give you insights through various neuroscience and cognitive psychology studies.

The hearing process

Our hearing system provides us with an amazing ability to identify and comprehend the most minuscule acoustic cues, from conversations to environmental soundscape or music.

It starts with sound waves entering the ear, striking the eardrum.

These sound waves make their way through three tiny bones called ossicles to the cochlea – inner ear.

The cochlea contains many thousands of sensory cells and is connected to the central hearing system by the auditory nerve.

Through this extremely complex pathway, the auditory nerve moves these signals into recognizable and meaningful sounds and connects us to the soundscape of our surrounding environment.

Music & the brain

MRI Brain TestWhen it comes to music, our brain is activated in many regions where emotions, motivation, learning and memory are triggered.

This MRI shows a brain at rest and the same brain stimulated with music. The difference is striking; we can clearly see how both hemispheres, left and right, illuminate and are activated through sound.

Researchers in Finland made an experiment. They recorded the brain responses of individuals listening to a piece of music while analyzing the musical content like the rhythmic, tonal and timbral components over time.

They discovered that “the processing of musical pulse recruits motor areas in the brain, supporting the idea that music and movement are closely intertwined. Limbic areas of the brain, known to be associated with emotions, were found to be involved in rhythm and tonality processing. Processing of timbre (the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity) was associated with activations in the so-called default mode network, which is assumed to be associated with mind-wandering and creativity.”

This is why when we hear music, our entire body responds to it. We sing and hum, we clap and sway, we dance and bounce.

… and we feel emotions.

Music & emotions

Brain connectivity, in particular between auditory and emotion centers of the brain, seems to be linked to the ability of music to make us feel things. In a way, music is an auditory channel towards the emotional centers of the brain.

When we try to express that internal movement, we use words like joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, surprise or love.

A survey conducted by UC Berkeley scientists mapped 13 key emotions triggered when we listen to music.

It surveyed more than 2,500 people in the United States and China about their emotional responses to these and thousands of other songs from genres including rock, folk, jazz, classical, marching band, experimental and heavy metal.

13 key emotions

The survey revealed “a complex, high-dimensional space of subjective experience associated with music in multiple cultures”.
Conclusions were that songs and instruments, with different kind of musical characteristics – pitch, loudness, tempo, timbre,… have the ability to trigger intense feelings across cultures.

Listen to these five audio excerpts and try to put a word on the type of emotions they trigger. They should all be different.

While listening, maybe some of you experienced chills: your heart rate increased, your skin became more sensitive and your body had goose bumps.

This is one of the most intriguing manifestation of music on our entire body. There is a word for that: frisson and it’s been one of the big mysteries of human nature since it was first described.

Conclusions & perspective for brands

As human being we are permanently connected to sound. Our ears cannot be shut down; we cannot stop listening.
Sounds envelops us; it’s everywhere.

Sound and music are extremely efficient. It takes our brain 0.25 seconds to process visual recognition but only 0.05 seconds when it comes to sound.

Sound is visceral. We don’t process sound in a rational way because it doesn’t even go to the rational part of our brains; it affects our emotions on a deeper level than any kind of visual stimuli. And it does it on subconscious level.

Sounds give you sensory input that is not limited by field of vision.1

1Seth Horowitz, author of the book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind.

Sound is memorable. Songs from the past can stir powerful emotions and memories. It’s an experience almost everybody can relate to: hear a piece of music from decades ago, and you are transported back to a particular moment in time, like stepping into a time machine. You can feel everything very strongly, as if you were actually there.
In a fast moving digital world, sound is therefore perfect to quickly grab attention and create instant recall.

Music releases dopamine in our brain, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for arousal, feelings of pleasure. It also activates parts of the brain’s reward system.

It’s clear that sound is one of the most powerful ways to capture attention and trigger emotions. The most successful brands understand this and use it to further their marketing and reach their audiences on a human level.

If you want to learn more about how music can add value for brands, click here.

Olivier Jamin Changeart

Olivier Jamin Changeart

Founder & President, OJC, Artisan of Sound