A Moment of Science

Musicians: Biologically Better at Identifying Emotion in Sound?

Recent studies have shown that people with musical training are better at picking out emotional cues in sound than people without the same musical background.

Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai

Photo: MITO SettembreMusica (Flickr)

Researchers found that the more musical experience and training a musician had, the more their nervous systems seemed able to process emotion in sound.

Recently, studies have shown that people with musical training are better at picking out emotional cues in sound than people without the same musical background.

A team of neuroscientists at Northwestern University compared the auditory brainstem responses of musicians and non-musicians to different emotion-laden human sounds, like crying babies.

The results were not exactly what the researchers expected. They found that musicians’ brainstems paid attention to a more complex part of the sound known to carry more emotional elements. But their brains tended to de-emphasize the simpler part of the sound, which carries less emotional content. This wasn’t true for non-musicians.

The more musical experience and training a musician had, the more their nervous systems seemed able to process emotion in sound. The auditory centers in their brainstems showed a greater response than those of the non-musicians to these complex sound cues.

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