Wednesday, November 16, 2011

David Huron. The science of sad sound.

In this video, David Huron, professor at the School of Music and Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State University, discusses the results of a series of experiments about sad music. Their basic question was: since sadness is an emotion that people normally do not want to feel, why would anyone listen to sad music? One of the results of the experiments is that experience of sad music depends on personality. For example, a person who scores high on openness in a personality inventory is more likely to listen to sad music. Also neurotic people tend to listen to sad music. Another striking effect is the following. When a sad event occurs, the body releases prolactin, a hormone with consoling and warming effect. Huron and his colleagues found that the body releases prolactin also when people listen to sad music, though in those cases no sad event actually happenes.

A few questions and thoughts…

I am intrigued by this short video, as it makes me wonder whether hormone release is related only to sad music, or whether, and to what extent, it relates to other kinds of music as well. Moreover, do we need a minimum level of sadness to activate prolactin? In other words, is there a level under which the brain does not engage with sadness, and maybe with other emotional states as well? Another question. Assuming that the hormonal triggering is related to more than one kind of music, what happens when we listen to music that is not related to a clearly identifiable emotion? For example, if we listen to a waltz, can we generally say that we are happy? Or sad? Or? In that case, how would hormonal triggering work? On another note, I wonder whether it is possible to activate hormones by using specific music-related parameters such as frequencies, to obtain effects similar to the ones described above, for therapeutic purposes. It seems to me that the use of specific frequencies constitutes a clear and reliable way to trigger specific mechanisms. I hope that Prof. Huron and his collaborators will continue sharing with us their fascinating and enlightening work online!


Lee Bartel said...

Excellent question as to what hormones are released by music. Peak experience or pleasurable listening was found to release dopamine - Salimpoor study from January 2011 in Montreal. Also seems Serotonin is released with some music and contributes to reduction in depression. And we know cortisol is reduced with relaxing music - and Interlukin 2 is increased (immunity).

Karine said...

This article made a lot of sense to me. When I listen to a sad piece, I noticed that even if it triggers feelings of sadness, in the end I feel more peaceful and calm. I am glad that David Huron explains such phenomena with a scientific approach. It is interesting to know that sad music can increase prolactin concentrations in the body, therefore producing a consoling psychological effect. Who would have thought that sad music actually had a positive effect? Maybe this study will change the way we prescribe music in therapy, and seek some kind of balance between sad and happy music. It is also important to note that not every person produces prolactin in the same quantities. David Huron explains that some people do not receive a rush of prolactin when listening to sad music, and they end up only feeling sad.

Katie said...

I wonder if there is a link between hormonal changes in the brain and our preferences for sad music. For example, during puberty, we know that adolescent brains are bathed in progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone. And from my own experiences with students of this age group I can say that they are almost constantly plugged into their personal music players listening to “sad” music. Perhaps this sad music and the release of prolactin is actually a way to combat the hormonal mood swings in teenagers? Perhaps they are not being antisocial when they put their headphones on and ignore you, rather they are just trying to self-medicate and deal with what is going on in their brains?
When I asked my students what happens when they listen to sad music or music in a minor key, most of them said it made them feel better. Up until now I thought it had more to do with the topic of the music and idea that they are not alone in feeling this way. But maybe it is more than that and has possible implications for music therapy in adolescents?

mary wei said...

It is always interesting to see how the body reacts to a stimulus chemically (hormones). This reminds me of the study that said the reason why people love to eat chocolate is because the chemicals released while eating chocolate are the same as if you were in love. It's fascinating how "feelings" are just as physical as mental.

I also wonder if the negative emotions (sadness, anger) have any special properties as opposed to other (positive) ones. The video I reviewed on Good Vibrations mentioned that "sad" and "angry" speeches follow a specific musical interval pattern, but none for the positive emotions of happiness or excitement.

I agree with the ambiguity of the notion of "sadness" and "happiness". The example of Waltz is very accurate. My question is, does our cultural upbringing affect our perception of musical moods? The pentatonic scale is pretty "sad" sounding in my opinion, but a lot of traditional Chinese songs that are pentatonic have expressed happiness and joy as well.

Bev Foster said...

I find this video interesting as my work with the Room 217 Foundation includes making therapeutic music albums for people who are dying and their loved ones. There is much sadness wrapped up in loss and we have defined certain artistic and therapeutic values which inform the music we make in order to come alongside people in their grief.
I'm interested in what makes a song sad - is it the musical structure itself i.e. modality, melodic contour? the way the music is performed i.e. soulfully, slowly? or the mood of the person listening (i.e. sad, mournful).
Another question this video clip raises for me is about the listener's perceptions, associations and meaning of the music. How much does that play into the release of prolactin or any of the other hormones mentioned i.e. cortisol, Interlukin 2, seretonin. We have had feedback about several of our Room 217 songs where individuals find a particular song too sad to listen to (where is the warm consoling effect?) because of a negative association.