Music scientists find the connection between music and emotion: ‘Our neurons dance to the same rhythm’

Three independent scientific studies analyze how the human brain transforms notes into feelings, a mystery that has intrigued psychologists and musicologists for decades

Música conexión cerebral
Singer Taylor Swift on stage in Melbourne, Australia, as past of her Eras Tour.JOEL CARRETT (EFE)
Enrique Alpañés

There is always music. In almost every religion the rituals are underscored with songs, and so too are the life stages of millions of people from birth to death. Sports teams and entire countries condense their identity into a song, which they turn into their official anthem. Music features in every part of our lives, from the most public to the most intimate. Lovers have “our song.” Separations are marked with songs about bitterness, survival, or melancholy. Festivals are eternally linked to singing and dancing. Then there are birthdays, and the holidays. There are whole albums that we associate with feelings and that have the power to take us to a time, a place, or a person. Music is one of the elements that moves us the most — and knows best how to move us. What we don’t really know is why.

For decades, psychologists and neurologists have been trying to understand how the brain perceives music, observing which cells and circuits come into play. Is it an exclusively human trait, or are other animals, such as birds and some dogs, equally musical? Are there such things as universal rhythms, or why does live music excite us more than recorded music? This month, three independent studies have attempted to shed more light on the issue.

Sascha Frühholz, a professor at the Neuroscience Unit at the University of Zurich, is the lead author of one of them. He has spent years studying how emotion is transmitted through sound. He admits that the topic has been widely explored, but it is one in which he has found certain gaps. “There are hardly any studies that analyze live music, and I think that something that we all know on a personal level is that we feel the music more intensely at a concert,” he explains in a telephone conversation.

To scientifically demonstrate this intuition, Frühholz had an audience of 19 volunteers listen to two pianists. The concerts were not particularly comfortable. The audience (only one person per recital) was not sitting, but lying on a stretcher, and this was brought into a huge magnetic resonance scanner to read how their brain reacted to the music. “Yes, it was quite strange,” the expert confesses with a laugh.

Sometimes a recorded song would be played. In other experiments, the musician started playing a song and could see the listener’s brain scan live. “We asked the pianist to try to change the way he played to adapt to brain activity,” explains Frühholz. “One of the reasons why live music has a stronger effect on the listener is the musician’s ability to change something in the performance, and if the change happens in the same direction in the audience and with the same intensity, we think that there is a synchronicity.” Synchrony is a kind of musical empathy. It is a communion between the performer and the listener that does not occur with recorded music. The study confirmed this idea, and the brain activity detected while listening to recorded songs was considerably less than when listening live.

Connection with the audience

“Artists usually look for connection with the audience,” psychologist Rosana Corbacho, who has specialized in treating musicians and other professionals in the sector for several years, explains via audio message. “You have to know how to surf those emotional waves to be present and open to connecting with the audience. Feeling the same emotions or evoking certain emotions at a concert is described as one of the most intense experiences in the life of an artist,” she reflects.

This feeling of belonging, of being part of something, serves as an emotional amplifier, magnifying the effects of music on an audience that reacts in unison to the same stimulus. It is something that is appreciated in present-day concerts or performances, but it worked in the same way in prehistoric rites with music and dancing in front of the fire. “There are studies where it has been observed that the rhythm of the heartbeat is synchronized in some way to the audience that is dancing to a DJ session in a club,” says Corbacho. “It’s as if our neurons dance to the same beat.”

The audience awaits a performance at a concert at the Arena Monterrey in Mexico this March.
The audience awaits a performance at a concert at the Arena Monterrey in Mexico this March.Medios y Media (Getty Images)

This musical communion partly explains how in recent years, when recorded music can be reproduced at a much higher quality than in the past, concerts and festivals have grown in importance to become one of the pillars of the music industry. In 2017, live music revenues in the world amounted to $18.1 billion, according to the Statista portal. In 2023, they topped $30.1 billion. The figures seem to come as no surprise to Frühholz. “If you think about it, music was born to be heard live. Only in the last hundred or so years — thanks to technology — have we started to listen to recorded music,” he argues.

Frühholz’s study supports these ideas, but the expert recognizes certain limitations, such as the lack of emotional contagion, as there was only one listener, and the greater potential that the pianist had to adapt to his audience, not only because it was small, but for his ability to almost literally read their mind. It is difficult to think that at a Taylor Swift concert, which brings together an average of 70,000 listeners, the artist can adapt to each and every member of the audience’s feelings. “It’s true,” the expert acknowledges, “but with pop singers like her the connection is easier because the public knows the lyrics of the songs. And you must also take emotional contagion into consideration.” The audience in a massive concert tends to harmonize feelings and behave almost as a single listener.

The tribe that danced to the rhythm of ‘Jingle Bells’

The following study did not take place in a Swiss laboratory, but in the Bolivian jungle. There, after days sailing through the Amazon, a group of scientists arrived to ask the Tsimane tribe about rhythms, sounds, and musicality. Nori Jacoby, a psychologist at MIT, led the experiment, which has recently been published in Nature. “It would have been more comfortable to do it from the couch,” he admits sarcastically, “but it wasn’t like that. We did on-site testing with more than 900 people from 15 countries.” Many came from societies whose traditional music contains distinctive rhythmic patterns not found in Western music. And an extra effort was made to look for profiles with little internet access to prevent their musical tastes from being too homogeneous, explains Jacoby, who currently works at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt.

The idea was to expose these people to certain musical patterns and ask them to replicate the rhythm with taps of their fingers to see how wrong they were when imitating standardized rhythms they had heard before. “It was similar to the game of broken telephone,” says the expert. “As the game progressed, participants became more and more inclined to act out what they thought they heard rather than what they were actually hearing. This iterative process thus revealed the expectations and natural tendencies that each listener has.”

Photo of the atmosphere at the "Dream in Gold" Oscars after-party at a Los Angeles nightclub on March 10.
Photo of the atmosphere at the "Dream in Gold" Oscars after-party at a Los Angeles nightclub on March 10.Randy Shropshire (Getty Images for Affinity Nightl)

This is the first large-scale cross-cultural study of musical rhythm. “It provides the clearest evidence to date that there is some degree of universality in musical perception and cognition,” the expert says. All the groups that were analyzed showed biases towards simple integer proportions. “We know that the human brain contains mechanisms that favor these types of constant rhythms,” says Jacoby. That would explain the universality of the 1:1:2 ratio that we hear in Jingle Bells, but also in traditional songs in almost all cultures, even the most isolated ones. “Evidently, these preferences may come from a natural tendency to have constant or isochronous pulsations,” the expert concludes.

From tribal music to electronic music. The last study to be reviewed analyzed how the latter can cause listeners to dissociate and alter their states of consciousness. It was led by Raquel Aparicio Terrés, a psychologist at the University of Barcelona. To carry out the research, he recruited 19 people aged between 18 and 22 and made them listen to six excerpts of electronic music at tempos of 99 beats per minute (bpm), 135 bpm, and 171 bpm. The researchers used electroencephalography, which measures electrical activity in the brain, to measure participants’ neural synchronization with music.

The synchronization between brain activity and the rhythm of the music occurred at all three tempos, but was most pronounced at 99 bpm, a rhythm which can be heard in this song (and which is similar to that of commercial hits such as Hello, Goodbye by The Beatles or Crazy in Love by Beyoncé).

Aparicio Terrés explains in the study that the results may have two medical implications. On the one hand, the understanding of the brain mechanisms that underlie altered states of consciousness, such as a coma or the vegetative state. And on the other hand, the knowledge and use of “non-invasive external techniques that facilitate desirable states of distancing from reality, especially in clinical environments such as intensive care units.”

“Using the science of music to relieve stress, anxiety, or alter states of consciousness is something that has been studied for a long time,” says Corbacho, who gives examples such as the Moonai application that uses sounds and music with which it promises to reduce menstrual pain. “We have used music to alter our emotional reactions throughout our evolution. As [psychologist] Guillermo Dalia says, before we could communicate with words, we used rhythms.”

However, until now we did not understand the mechanisms that translate these notes into emotions. What makes a song move us to dance, convey anguish, or make us cry. We do not completely understand it now either. The studies above, and many others, are beginning to shed light on the enigmatic black box that is our brain. And they promise to reveal if there is a certain universality in these feelings, if the most famous songs in history are nothing more than mathematical formulas capable of hitting the right keys not only musically, but also neurologically speaking.

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