Brain correlates of music-evoked emotions

Journal name:
Nature Reviews Neuroscience
Year published:
Published online


Music is a universal feature of human societies, partly owing to its power to evoke strong emotions and influence moods. During the past decade, the investigation of the neural correlates of music-evoked emotions has been invaluable for the understanding of human emotion. Functional neuroimaging studies on music and emotion show that music can modulate activity in brain structures that are known to be crucially involved in emotion, such as the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, hypothalamus, hippocampus, insula, cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex. The potential of music to modulate activity in these structures has important implications for the use of music in the treatment of psychiatric and neurological disorders.

At a glance


  1. The main pathways underlying autonomic and muscular responses to music.
    Figure 1: The main pathways underlying autonomic and muscular responses to music.

    Note that the auditory cortex (AC) also projects to the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the cingulate cortex (projections not shown). Moreover, the amygdala (AMYG), OFC and cingulate cortex send numerous projections to the hypothalamus (not shown) and thus also exert influence on the endocrine system, including the neuroendocrine motor system. ACC, anterior cingulate cortex; CN, cochlear nuclei; IC, inferior colliculus; M1, primary motor cortex; MCC, middle cingulate cortex; MGB, medial geniculate body; NAc, nucleus accumbens; PMC, premotor cortex; RCZ, rostral cingulate zone; VN, vestibular nuclei.

  2. Neural correlates of music-evoked emotions.
    Figure 2: Neural correlates of music-evoked emotions.

    A meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies that shows several neural correlates of music-evoked emotions9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29. The analysis indicates clusters of activity changes reported across studies in the amygdala (local maxima were located in the left superficial amygdala (SF), in the right laterobasal amygdala (LB)) and hippocampal formation (panel a), the left caudate nucleus and right ventral striatum (with a local maximum in the nucleus accumbens (NAc)) (panel b), pre-supplementary motor area (SMA), rostral cingulate zone (RCZ), orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and mediodorsal thalamus (MD) (panel c), as well as in auditory regions (Heschl's gyrus (HG) and anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG)) (panel d). Note that, owing to the different experimental paradigms used in these studies, limbic and paralimbic brain areas that have not been indicated in this meta-analysis may nevertheless contribute to music-evoked emotions. Outlines of anatomical structures in panel a are adapted from probability maps according to Ref. 143 (the SF is shown in green, the LB is shown in red, the CA is shown in blue and the subiculum is shown in yellow). Clusters were computed using activation likelihood estimation (ALE) as implemented in GingerALE144, 145 (false discovery rate-corrected p < 0.01, 339 foci of 44 contrasts obtained from 21 studies with 319 participants). None of the contrasts included music with lyrics, and none of the contrasts included a comparison of music against a non-stimulus rest condition (for details, see Supplementary information S1 (box)). Images are shown according to neurological convention, and coordinates refer to Talairach space. Coordinates of local maxima of clusters are provided in Supplementary information S1 (box).

  3. Comparison of neural correlates of music-evoked emotions revealed in functional imaging studies with neuropsychological data.
    Figure 3: Comparison of neural correlates of music-evoked emotions revealed in functional imaging studies with neuropsychological data.

    The upper row of images shows the results of the meta-analysis (see also Fig. 1 and Supplementary information S1 (box); y coordinates refer to Talairach space), the lower row of images shows grey matter loss associated with impaired recognition of emotions expressed by music in frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Note the overlap (indicated by the yellow circles) between the amygdala (AMYG) and temporal cortex (panel a), the posterior insula (INSp)/parietal operculum (pOP) and hippocampus (panel b) and the lateral and medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFCm) and pre-genual anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) (panel c). This overlap indicates that activations of these structures in functional neuroimaging studies have a causal role in music-evoked emotions. Images are shown according to neurological convention. aSTG, anterior superior temporal gyrus; HF, hippocampal formation; HG, Heschl's gyrus. The images in the lower row for panels a, b and c are modified, with permission, from Ref. 76 © (2011) Elsevier.

  4. Probability distributions of chords and chord progressions.
    Figure 4: Probability distributions of chords and chord progressions.

    a | The light blue bars show the frequencies of occurrence of chord functions in a corpus of Bach chorales (data from Ref. 146). The entropy of the resulting probability distribution is 3.1 bits per chord. The purple bars show an imaginary probability distribution with only three chord functions (as would be typical, for example, for a piece of polka music); here, the tonal centre is easier to extract and the entropy is considerably lower (1.5). The green bars show an imaginary probability distribution in which all chord functions occur with the same probability. The tonal centre is difficult to extract, and the entropy of that distribution is high (3.9). b | This graph shows the context-dependent bigram probabilities for the corpus of Bach chorales (data from Ref. 146). Blue bars show probabilities of chord functions following the tonic (I), green bars following the submediant (vi) and red bars following a dominant (V). The entropy values (and thus the uncertainty of predictions for the next chord) for these three probability distributions are 2.9 (during tonic), 3.4 (during submediant) and 2.3 (during dominant). c | These entropy values, as well as entropy values for the probability distributions for chords following other chord functions, are shown in the graph. IV, subdominant; ii, supertonic; V7, dominant seventh; V/V, secondary dominant; iii, mediant; V7/V, secondary dominant seventh; V/vi, secondary dominant of submediant; iim7, supertonic seventh; vim7, submediant seventh; vii, leading tone; V/ii, secondary dominant of supertonic; Vsus, suspended dominant.


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  1. Cluster: Languages of Emotion, Freie Universität, Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin, Germany.

    • Stefan Koelsch

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The author declares no competing interests.

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  • Stefan Koelsch

    Stefan Koelsch is Professor for Biological Psychology and Music Psychology at Freie Universität, Berlin (Germany). He has a masters degree in music, psychology and sociology and obtained a Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience (Leipzig, Germany), before carrying out postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School (Boston, Massachusetts, USA). His research interests include the neurocognition of music, emotion, music therapy, similarities and differences between music and language processing, neural correlates of cognition and action, emotional personality and the unconscious mind. Stefan Koelsch's homepage.

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  1. Supplementary information S1 (box) (222 KB)

    To visualize the main findings of previous functional neuroimaing studies on music-evoked emotions, and to provide coordinates for directed hypotheses of future studies, a meta-analysis was computed.

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