Musicians Read Emotions Better

That soulful singer and expressive guitarist really are more tapped into their feelings than the rest of us. New research shows that people with musical training are better at reading emotion in sound.

In fact, the more years of musical experience people have, and the younger they began their music training, the better their nervous system is at processing emotions in sound.

Neuroscientists asked 30 people to watch a subtitled nature film while listening to a 250-millisecond clip of a distressed baby’s cry. Using scalp electrodes, the researchers measured how sensitive the people were to the sound, especially the more complicated part that communicates emotional content.

The scientists found that the musicians were able to hone in directly to the emotional aspect of the sound, while non-musicians weren't able to compartmentalize the sound as easily.

“That [musicians'] brains respond more quickly and accurately than the brains of non-musicians is something we’d expect to translate into the perception of emotion in other settings,” said Dana Strait, a graduate student at Northwestern University and first author of a paper detailing the findings in the latest issue of the European Journal of Neuroscience.

The aspects of sound that musicians processed more efficiently are the same elements that people with some language disorders, such as dyslexia and autism, have trouble understanding.

“It would not be a leap to suggest that children with language processing disorders may benefit from musical experience,” said Strait's advisor, neuroscientist Nina Kraus.

This isn't the first study to find links between music and emotions. Previous research found that people who are more familiar with a piece of music are more likely to get chills and goosebumps from the performance, indicating that they experience the emotion in the music more deeply. Another study found that even babies can distinguish between happy songs and sad, revealing that recognizing feelings in music comes naturally to humans.

“Quickly and accurately identifying emotion in sound is a skill that translates across all arenas, whether in the predator-infested jungle or in the classroom, boardroom or bedroom,” Strait said.

Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both and Live Science.