intellectual vanities… about close to everything

Why Musicians Make Us Weep And Napster Doesn’t

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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.

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.”

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


There is lack of neuroscientific studies investigating music processing with naturalistic stimuli, and brain responses to real music are, thus, largely unknown.

Methodology/Principal Findings
This study investigates event-related brain potentials (ERPs), skin conductance responses (SCRs) and heart rate (HR) elicited by unexpected chords of piano sonatas as they were originally arranged by composers, and as they were played by professional pianists. From the musical excerpts played by the pianists (with emotional expression), we also created versions without variations in tempo and loudness (without musical expression) to investigate effects of musical expression on ERPs and SCRs. Compared to expected chords, unexpected chords elicited an early right anterior negativity (ERAN, reflecting music-syntactic processing) and an N5 (reflecting processing of meaning information) in the ERPs, as well as clear changes in the SCRs (reflecting that unexpected chords also elicited emotional responses). The ERAN was not influenced by emotional expression, whereas N5 potentials elicited by chords in general (regardless of their chord function) differed between the expressive and the non-expressive condition.

These results show that the neural mechanisms of music-syntactic processing operate independently of the emotional qualities of a stimulus, justifying the use of stimuli without emotional expression to investigate the cognitive processing of musical structure. Moreover, the data indicate that musical expression affects the neural mechanisms underlying the processing of musical meaning. Our data are the first to reveal influences of musical performance on ERPs and SCRs, and to show physiological responses to unexpected chords in naturalistic music.


Written by huehueteotl

July 11, 2008 at 7:44 am

Posted in Neuroscience

One Response

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  1. My wife and I operate a music lessons and recording studio, The Musik Planet, in Riverside, CA. We teach piano, voice, guitar, drums, and other instruments. We play recorded music all day, and it is often moving. But nothing moves us, or our clients sitting in our lobby, more than a live performance. We can digitalize and record all we want, but there will never be anything to take the place of human to human interaction, whether it be in live comedy, a speech or, especially, live music.

    Chris Plante

    February 24, 2009 at 2:40 am

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