Putting the emo in emotional: How music conveys and changes emotion

What kind of music do you listen to when you’re sad or happy? On the other hand what music makes you sad or happy? Are your answers to these questions different?  Music allows us to share and experience different emotions, in ways that reach across time and culture. The opening notes of Behtoven’s 5th symphony are enough to raise the hairs on your neck some 200 years after it was written. What is it about music that evokes these strong emotions?

The emotional effects of music are surprisingly universal even in induviduals who do not listen to music as a part of daily life. A study of children with mild to severe hearing impairment who attended schools for the deaf were played music and told to rate the emotions it elicited (Darrow et al., 2006). These answers were rated on how much they agreed with the intentions of the composer. The deaf children on average were significantly less successful than hearing participants in determining the emotion of the pieces. One interesting implication of this study is that even when children could hear some or most of the music, they did not know how to listen to the music and extract cultural expression from it the way that other children can. Also perhaps more interesting

Sometimes none of us can really get what a composer was trying to convey

than the differences between the deaf and hearing children is the fact that at some level even people who have had little exposure to music in their daily life were able to correctly judge the composers intended emotions at all. This study shows that music has some elements for communication that are universal and some elements that must be learned through cultural exposure.


While the study of deaf students shows us that the emotional effects of music are in part due to culture, other research has shown that music exerts effects on us beyond what we may be able to easily perceive. While we all may have songs that calm us down, a study of mice found that exposure to Mozart’s music decreased blood pressure through a rather convoluted physiological route (Sutoo & Akiyama, 2004). Music increases levels of calcium in the blood, in the brain in turn this increase promotes synthesis of the

Maybe music really can unite us all

neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and the neostriatum. Dopamine then inhibits the sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for creating the “fight or flight” stress response, decreasing blood pressure. Dopamine also plays a central role in the brains reward pathways. So, perhaps basic physiological changes such as an increase in blood calcium underly musics ability to change our emotions  What is interesting about using an animal model to study the effects of music is that (to this author’s knowledge) mice do not have the same culturally constructed meaning around music and emotions that we do. The fact that music can alter their physiological stress response suggests that musics effects are not some cultural artifact but have emerged through our evolutionary history.


So what is it about music that makes it so powerful for our higher level thoughts and emotions? Part of the joy in music may lie in its reliance on time. When you listen to a piece of music, even one you haven’t heard you predict what will come next. These predictions of moments of enjoyable musical crescendos and bass drops actually cause increased activity in the nucleus accumbens an area central in dopamine production (Salimpoor et al., 2015). This may explain why a song you hated when you first heard it may start to seem better and better once its been on the radio for several months, as you learn to anticipate what course the music is going to take.Perhaps this anticipation was part of what made predicting musics intended emotion difficult for the deaf children, as they had not had enough exposure to music in their daily lives to learn what kinds of patterns to expect.  On the other hand, when people

It can be frustrating when the bass is dropped at the wrong time

are played music with a chord or section that breaks the expected norms for music, they show increased activity in the caudate, the inferior frontal regions,  and the amygdala, areas implicated in anticipation, processing the structure of music, and emotion, respectively (Salimpoor et al., 2015). This may explain why this version of Smash Mouth’s All Star is so surreal. So, in addition to intended emotional effects, music can change your emotion by violating the cultural knowledge you have about how music should be structured and delivered.

Music is one of the oldest and most universal ways we communicate our emotions. Interestingly, there are parts of this communication accessible to all of us equally, including some of our more distant mammalian relatives and some aspects that require training and exposure in a cultural context. Also fascinating is the variety of ways that music effects the dopaminergic areas of the brain, which may in part account for the wide variety of tastes and styles of music people prefer.


Darrow, A. A. (2006). The role of music in deaf culture: Deaf students’ perception of emotion in music. Journal of music therapy, 43(1), 2-15.

Salimpoor, V. N., Zald, D. H., Zatorre, R. J., Dagher, A., & McIntosh, A. R. (2015). Predictions and the brain: how musical sounds become rewarding.Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(2), 86-91.

Sutoo, D. E., & Akiyama, K. (2004). Music improves dopaminergic neurotransmission: demonstration based on the effect of music on blood pressure regulation. Brain research, 1016(2), 255-262.


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