The Way You Make Me Feel: Music and Emotions

If memory serves me right, it was only around late high school when I’ve developed appreciation for music. Fast forward to the present and although my tastes may have changed, music is still an integral part of my everyday life.

Depending on the type, music can jolt me awake in the morning or lull me to sleep at night; remind me of a fond memory or take my mind off an unpleasant one; hold my attention when I’m bored or distract me when I have lots of worries in mind; move me to smile when I’m feeling a little down or cause me to have a much-needed cathartic cry.

Music also helps me express myself when words seem to be insufficient, for somehow it has the capacity to give clarity to the feelings I can’t quite articulate. It also invigorates me when I lose inspiration, and motivates me when I lack willpower.

Wouldn’t it be nice? [Source]

Truly, it’s amazing how music can influence our emotions. However, as demonstrated by Pereira et al. (2011), familiarity seems to be a crucial factor in making listeners emotionally engaged with music. They were able to arrive at this conclusion by conducting a two-part experiment, wherein the first phase involved listening to 15-second excerpts of 110 pop/rock songs, which had to be classified based on whether the participants were familiar or unfamiliar with the song, and whether or not they liked it.

Of the twenty-seven volunteers who participated in the first phase of the experiment, only 15 gathered all the conditions to undergo the second phase (i.e., those who selected at least twelve songs in the experimental conditions [familiar, liked; familiar, disliked; unfamiliar, liked; unfamiliar, disliked]). The second phase of the experiment involved listening to 48 pop/rock songs (12 in each experimental condition) while inside an fMRI scanner. Baseline stimulation was measured through a Morse code, perceived by the sample of subjects as a series of meaningless beeps.

Data analysis has shown that musical preferences had only a marginal effect on the activation of limbic, paralimbic and reward system areas. Meanwhile, familiarity with the music triggered increased blood oxygen level dependence response in emotion-related regions, namely the putamen, amygdala, nucleus accumbens, anterior cingulate cortex, and thalamus. This further adds to the evidence that most emotion-related brain activity was triggered by familiar music (liked or disliked), rather than liked music (familiar or unfamiliar). Hence, familiar songs, including those that were liked and those that were disliked, were more efficient in activating the network of brain regions known to respond to emotional stimuli.

The results of this study clearly have useful applications in the development of music therapy. Knowing how familiarity could affect emotional responses to music, programs utilizing music therapy must then be designed on a more personal level with special attention to cultural and individual differences, or else you’d risk causing more harm than good – case in point: even the toughest of criminals fold when made to listen to the heavy metal genre which they haven’t heard before (Frith, 2004; cited in Yehuda, 2011). If used appropriately, we can then count on music to boost well-being, reduce stress and anxiety, improve mood, enhance sense of relaxation, and distract patients from unpleasant symptoms.

Given the potential exhibited by music to make our lives all the more comfortable and enjoyable, I shall leave you with:

-Louise Erika Sayo

Frith, S. (2004). Why does music make people so cross? Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 13, 64–69.

Pereira, C., Teixeira, J., Figueiredo, P., Xavier, J., Castro, S., & Brattico, E. (2011). Music and emotions in the brain:   Familiarity matters. Plos ONE, 6(11), 1-9. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027241

Yehuda, N. (2011). Music and stress. Journal Of Adult Development, 18(2), 85-94.

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