Review Article | Published:

Brain correlates of music-evoked emotions

Nature Reviews Neuroscience volume 15, pages 170180 (2014) | Download Citation

Abstract

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.

Key points

  • The superficial amygdala is involved in the processing of basic socio-affective information, including music.

  • Music-evoked pleasure is associated with activity of the dopaminergic mesolimbic reward pathway (in particular the right nucleus accumbens and the left dorsal striatum) and with activity of the ventromedial orbitofrontal cortex, pre-genual anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, anterior insula and mediodorsal thalamus. Thus, music-evoked pleasure is associated with the activation of a phylogenetically old reward network that functions to ensure the survival of the individual and the species.

  • Owing to its high structural and functional centrality, the amygdala is in a key position to modulate and regulate emotion networks with regard to initiating, maintaining and terminating emotions.

  • The concept of musical tension relates to emotions arising from processing intra-musical structure, including emotions associated with the build-up, fulfilment and violation of predictions.

  • Progressing tones and harmonies create an entropic flux that gives rise to a constantly changing (un)certainty of predictions and thus to musical tension.

  • Music triggers engagement in social functions, hence musical activity is directly related to the fulfilment of basic human needs, such as communication, cooperation and social attachment. Supporting social functions was probably an important adaptive function of music in the evolution of humans.

  • The hippocampus plays a part in the generation of attachment-related emotions and can be activated by music owing to music's ability to support social attachment.

  • The auditory cortex has emotion-specific functional connections with a broad range of limbic, paralimbic and neocortical structures. Thus, the role of the auditory cortex in emotion is more extensive than previously believed.

  • Music influences, and interacts with, the processing of visual information (whether visual information is real or imagined). Emotion-specific functional connections between auditory and visual cortices are part of an affective–attentional network that might have a role in visual alertness, visual imagery and an involuntary shift of attention.

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Acknowledgements

The author thanks M. Lehne, C. Pehrs, E. Gitterman, W. Trost, K. Friston, M. Pearce, N. Todd, S. Eickhoff, N. Gosselin and J. Warren for comments on the manuscript, and E. Gitterman for his help in preparing figure 4.

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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 financial interests.

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Correspondence to Stefan Koelsch.

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    Supplementary information S1 (box)

    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.

Glossary

Music

Structured sounds that are produced by humans as a means of social interaction, expression, diversion or evocation of emotion.

Functional neuroimaging

Functional neuroimaging methods, such as functional MRI (fMRI) or positron emission tomography (PET), use indirect measures (for example, changes in regional blood flow) to localize neural activity in the brain.

Otolith organs

The two otolith organs, the saccule and utricle, are vestibular organs that sense linear acceleration (and its gravitational equivalent).

Vestibular nuclei

Nuclei that are located in the brainstem and receive information from the vestibular nerve.

Cochlear nuclei

Nuclei that are located in the brainstem and receive information from the cochlear ('auditory') nerve.

Forebrain

The forebrain (also called the prosencephalon) comprises the diencephalon, the telencephalon impar and the telencephalon (cerebrum).

Affective prosody

The non-lexical expression of emotion in speech, as characterized, for example, by pitch height, pitch range, pitch variability, loudness, velocity, rapidity of voice onsets and voice quality.

Eigenvector centrality

A measure of centrality (often used as a measure of the relative importance, or influence, of a node within a network); it assigns a large value if a node is connected with many other nodes that are themselves central within the network.

[11C]raclopride

[11C]raclopride is a radiolabelled D2 dopamine receptor antagonist that is used in positron emission tomography studies.

Frontotemporal lobar degeneration

A term used to describe a group of focal non-Alzheimer dementias that are characterized by selective atrophy of the frontal as well as temporal lobes of the brain. It includes syndromes led by behavioural and semantic disintegration, often accompanied by strikingly impaired understanding of emotional and social signals.

Dominant

A functional denotation of a chord built on the fifth scale tone.

Tonic

A functional denotation of a chord that is built on the first scale tone.

Submediant

A functional denotation of a chord built on the sixth scale tone.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3666

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