Why musicians make us weep and computers don't

Jul 09, 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: Not just for the holidays, mistletoe could fight obesity-related liver disease

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

How birds get by without external ears

Dec 11, 2014

Unlike mammals, birds have no external ears. The outer ears of mammals play an important function in that they help the animal identify sounds coming from different elevations. But birds are also able to ...

Dragonflies on the hunt display complex choreography

Dec 10, 2014

The dragonfly is a swift and efficient hunter. Once it spots its prey, it takes about half a second to swoop beneath an unsuspecting insect and snatch it from the air. Scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical ...

Dogs hear our words and how we say them

Nov 26, 2014

When people hear another person talking to them, they respond not only to what is being said—those consonants and vowels strung together into words and sentences—but also to other features of that speech—the ...

Recommended for you

Stem cells faulty in Duchenne muscular dystrophy

1 hour ago

Like human patients, mice with a form of Duchenne muscular dystrophy undergo progressive muscle degeneration and accumulate connective tissue as they age. Now, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have ...

Here's how the prion protein protects us

5 hours ago

The cellular prion protein (PrPC) has the ability to protect the brain's neurons. Although scientists have known about this protective physiological function for some time, they were lacking detailed knowledge ...

Regulation of maternal miRNAs in early embryos revealed

6 hours ago

The Center for RNA Research at the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) has succeeded in revealing, for the first time, the mechanism of how miRNAs, which control gene expression, are regulated in the early embryonic stage.

User comments : 0

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.