Why musicians make us weep and computers don't

July 9, 2008

Music can soothe the savage breast much better if played by musicians rather than clever computers, according to a new University of Sussex-led study published in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE.

Neuroscientists looked at the brain's response to piano sonatas played either by a computer or a musician and found that, while the computerised music elicited an emotional response – particularly to unexpected chord changes - it was not as strong as listening to the same piece played by a professional pianist.

Senior research fellow in psychology Dr Stefan Koelsch, who carried out the study with colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, played excerpts from classical piano sonatas to twenty non-musicians and recorded electric brain responses and skin conductance responses (which vary with sweat production as a result of an emotional response).

Although the participants did not play instruments and considered themselves unmusical, their brains showed clear electric activity in response to musical changes (unexpected chords and changes in tonal key), which indicated that the brain was understanding the "musical grammar". This response was enhanced, however, when the sonatas were played by musicians rather than a computer.

Dr Koelsch said: "It was interesting for us that the emotional reactions to the unexpected chords were stronger when played with musical expression. This shows us how musicians can enhance the emotional response to particular chords due to their performance, and it shows us how our brains react to the performance of other individuals."

The study also revealed that the brain was more likely to look for musical meaning when the music was played by a pianist.

"This is similar to the response we see when the brain is responding to language and working out what the words mean," says Dr Koelsch. "Our results suggest that musicians actually tell us something when they play The brain responses show that when a pianist plays a piece with emotional expression, the piece is actually perceived as meaningful by listeners, even if they have not received any formal musical training."

Citation: Koelsch S, Kilches S, Steinbeis N, Schelinski S (2008) Effects of Unexpected Chords and of Performer's Expression on Brain Responses and Electrodermal Activity. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2631. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002631

Source: Public Library of Science

Explore further: Using flies to understand how pregnancy drives food cravings

Related Stories

Using flies to understand how pregnancy drives food cravings

September 24, 2015

Researchers at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon discovered that fruit flies share the human craving for salt during pregnancy and shed light on how the nervous system controls this behaviour. The study is ...

Improving memory with a flash of light

September 14, 2015

The burgeoning field of optogenetics has seen another breakthrough with the creation of a new plant-human hybrid protein molecule called OptoSTIM1. In South Korea, a research team led by Won Do Heo, associate professor at ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.