Saturday, December 3, 2011

Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters


Pereira, Carlos Silva, João Teixeira, Patrícia Figueiredo, João Xavier, São Luís Castro, and Elvira Brattico. "Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters." PLoS One 2011; 6(11): e27241.


The goal of this study was to understand which regions of the brain are involved in music appreciation. Using a listening test and a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment, the researchers wanted to know how familiarity in the brain correlates with music appreciation. The subjects that were chosen for this study had no formal musical education, but described themselves as ‘music lovers’, listening to music on a daily basis. First, the subjects participated in a listening test, in which they listened to pop/rock song extracts and decided if each song was familiar or unfamiliar and if they liked it or not. Based on this test, a unique set of stimuli was selected for each participant, containing music in four different conditions: familiar liked, familiar disliked, unfamiliar liked and unfamiliar disliked, and was presented during an fMRI session.

Brain activation data revealed that broad emotion-related limbic and paralimbic regions as well as the reward circuitry were significantly more active for familiar music compared to unfamiliar music. Smaller regions in the cingulate cortex and frontal lobe, including the motor cortex and Broca's area, were found to be more active in response to liked music when compared to disliked one. The study concluded that familiarity is a crucial factor in making the listeners emotionally engaged with music, as revealed by fMRI data.


Music is omnipresent in our society, and it represents a multi billion industry. One of the reasons behind this success is the ability of music to convey emotions. This study is very interesting because it proves how familiarity of a piece of music increases the emotional response in our brain. The more you hear a song, the more it increases the blood oxygen level in emotion related regions of the brain. This conclusion correlates the findings of a previous study by Blood and Zatorre that reported a correlation between increased intensity of felt chills when listening to favourite pieces of music.

In my personal experience, I have found that I have the deepest emotional response to songs that I know. One could think that by knowing a song very well, it becomes predictable, and consequently there is nothing new and exciting to hear anymore. On the contrary, I think that by knowing every part of a song, the brain does not have to focus on analysing new data, but it can focus on the enjoyment of the piece, which can sometimes lead to a more powerful emotional response that appears in the form of chills or goose bumps. Some studies have also shown that patients with severe brain conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s have strong brain activation responses when hearing familiar music.


Amber Cunningham said...

Though initially it seems counter intuitive for music to become more emotionally potent the more familiar it is, I too can speak from experience and acknowledge that this has been the case for me. Especially when I find an unfamiliar piece interesting, I will listen to it multiple times and find this enhances the original response. Knowing that we often associate memories with music, I have to wonder if greater emotional activation of the brain is possibly linked to those memories being activated by familiar music and not just the music itself? I imagine this would be challenging to isolate on an fMRI, but would be interesting in relationship to Alzheimer's and dementia patient therapies. I know of many cases where severe dementia patients display less confusion or even return of appetite when exposed to music that is familiar or significant to them personally.

Katie said...

Music appreciation is something that really speaks to me as it appeals to a majority of my students. Few of them will become professional musicians, but hopefully they can all become expert listeners. We see from the study that we need to expose our students to a lot of different music so they have a greater opportunity of encountering music they like. As an educator, it is a great feeling when you introduce a new piece of music to a student and they immediately take an interest in it and go seek out more of the same artist or style of music.
We know that there is a positive correlation between music and emotion, but I found it interesting that when listening to music the motor areas of the brain are involved. This further supports the link between music and movement and that listening is just as important as playing and justifies the importance of music appreciation in school.

Elizabeth said...

In the music classroom as well, students respond to music that is familiar whether negative or positive, depending on the emotions associated with the listening experience.
I think this also speaks to certain music from diverse cultures where the musical elements and style differ from what the students are used to.Unless students are familiar with the music, often the response is not as positive; however, when they have had more exposure, more context to the music, it becomes easier to process, thus becoming more familiar. I think a big part of this familiarity idea is how the music is presented initially. That first exposure to a piece is the first impression. And for some, once is enough. On the other hand, for others, music that is unfamiliar can be quite intriguing and evoke a positive emotional response.

Alicia_Ritmundi said...

"One could think that by knowing a song very well, it becomes predictable, and consequently there is nothing new and exciting to hear anymore."

My emotional relationship with music is not only connected with individual pieces but also familiar styles.

When I listen to music, I am clearly emotionally moved by a familiar song, but I can also equally be moved by a familiar genre of music or music from a particular region of the world in the same way.

For me, there is something about the construction of the music and the "intention" which captivates me emotional and consequentially increases my flow of ideas/creativity.

I have worked with older people in the past with dementia. It is clear that familiar music is great to stimulate memory but I also found that music which may not be familiar but of a familiar style is also effective in stimulating emotion.

Further research could look at brain scans of sufferers of dementia and their responses to familiar song and genres in regards to emotional activity.