Music

Everything you always wanted to know about language but were too afraid to ask

MPI Nijmegen

The MPI in Nijmegen: the origin of answers to your questions.

The Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen has started a great initiative which tries nothing less than answer all your questions about language. How does it work?

1) Go to this website: http://www.mpi.nl/q-a/questions-and-answers
2) See whether your question has already been answered
3) If not, scroll to the bottom and ask a question yourself.
The answers are not provided by just anybody but by language researchers themselves. Before they are put on the web they get checked by another researcher and they get translated into German, Dutch and English. It’s a huge enterprise, to be sure..
As an employee of the Max Planck Institute I’ve had my own go at answering a few questions:
- How does manipulating through language work?
- Is it true that people who are good in music can learn a language sooner?
- How do gender articles affect cognition?
.What do think of my answers? What questions would you like to see answered?

 

——————————————————————————————————————–

Thibodeau, P., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning PLoS ONE, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0016782

Asaridou, S., & McQueen, J. (2013). Speech and music shape the listening brain: evidence for shared domain-general mechanisms Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00321

Segel, E., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Grammar in Art Frontiers in Psychology, 1 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00244

 

ResearchBlogging.org

Music training boosts IQ

There are more and more brain training companies popping up which promise the same deal: improved intelligence. While there are doubts about their results, another sort of brain training has existed since the beginning of humanity: music. The evidence for its effectiveness is surprisingly strong.

.

Music Lesson, 1936

Brain training in the 1930’s.

.
Over the years, researchers have noticed that people who have taken music lessons are better on a wide range of seemingly unconnected tasks. Just look at this impressive list:

.

Mathematics (across many different tasks; Vaughn, 2000)
Reading (understanding a written text; Corrigall & Trainor, 2011)
Simon task (quickly overcoming an easy, intuitive response in order to do a task right; Bialystok & DePape, 2009)
Digit Span (repeating a long list of random digits; Schellenberg, 2011)
Simple Reaction Time (pressing a button as soon as possible; Hughes & Franz, 2007)

.

None of these tasks has anything to do with music classes. What is it that makes music lessons correlate with them? It could just be the socio-economic background: the more well-off or well-educated the parents the better the education of their children, including their music education (e.g., Corrigall et al., 2013). However, one can adjust for these differences with statistical tricks and the general picture is that the family background cannot fully explain the advantage musically trained children have on all sorts of tasks (e.g., Corrigall & Trainor, 2011; Schellenberg, 2011). If not family background, then what is underlying the music children advantage?

.

Füssli: Liegende Nackte und Klavierspielerin

Brain training in the 18th century. I am referring to the left lady.

.
Another contender is a common factor making some people good on all sorts of seemingly unrelated tasks and other people bad on nearly any task. This factor is called ‘g’ or general intelligence. An indeed, people who have enjoyed a musical education score higher on intelligence tests than people who did not. This has been shown across the globe: North America (Schellenberg, 2011), Europe (Roden et al., 2013), Asia (Ho et al., 2003†). The consistency across age groups is also impressive: 6-11 year olds (Schellenberg, 2006), 9-12 year olds (Schellenberg, 2011), 16-25 year-olds (Schellenberg, 2006). So, what holds these tasks and music education together is general intelligence. But that just opens up the next question: what causes this association between general intelligence and music lessons?
Music lessons cause higher intelligence
The most exciting possibility would be if music lessons actually caused higher intelligence. In order to make such a claim one needs to take a bunch of people and randomly assign them to either music lessons or some comparable activity. This random assignment ensures that any previous differences between music and non-music children will be equally distributed across groups. Random chance assignment at the beginning of the experiment ensures that any group differences at the end must be due to the whether children took music lessons during the experiment or not. Glenn Schellenberg did exactly this experiment with over 100 six-year-olds in Toronto (2004). Over a period of one year the children who learned to play the keyboard or to sing increased their IQ by 7 points. Children who were given drama lessons instead or simply no extra-curricular activity only increased by 4 points (likely because they started school in that year). A similar study which recently came out of Iran by Kaviani and colleagues (2013) replicates this finding. After only three months of group music lessons, the six-year-old music children increased their IQ by five points while children who were not assigned to music lessons only improved by one point. Across studies music lessons boost IQ.
It is worth reiterating how impressive this effect is. It has been found across three different music teaching approaches (standard keyboard lessons, Kodály voice lessons, Orff method). It has been replicated with two different sorts of intelligence tests (Wechsler and Stanford-Binet) as well as most of their subscales. It even came up despite the cultural differences between testing countries (Canada, Iran).
The take-home message couldn’t be any clearer. Music lessons are associated with intelligence not just because clever or well-off people take music lessons. A musical education itself makes you better across many tasks generally and on IQ tests specifically. No other ‘brain training’ has such a strong evidence base. Music is the best brain training we have.

.

Eros and a youth

Ancient Greek brain training. I am referring to the gentleman on the right.

.

———————————————————————————————————————–
Bialystok E, & Depape AM (2009). Musical expertise, bilingualism, and executive functioning. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 35 (2), 565-74 PMID: 19331508

Corrigall KA, Schellenberg EG, & Misura NM (2013). Music training, cognition, and personality. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 23641225

Corrigall, KA, & Trainor, LJ (2011). Associations Between Length of Music Training and Reading Skills in Children Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal,, 29 (2), 147-155 DOI: 10.1525/mp.2011.29.2.147

Ho YC, Cheung MC, & Chan AS (2003). Music training improves verbal but not visual memory: cross-sectional and longitudinal explorations in children. Neuropsychology, 17 (3), 439-50 PMID: 12959510

Hughes CM, & Franz EA (2007). Experience-dependent effects in unimanual and bimanual reaction time tasks in musicians. Journal of motor behavior, 39 (1), 3-8 PMID: 17251166

Kaviani H, Mirbaha H, Pournaseh M, & Sagan O (2013). Can music lessons increase the performance of preschool children in IQ tests? Cognitive processing PMID: 23793255

Roden, I, Grube, D, Bongard, S, & Kreutz, G (2013). Does music training enhance working memory performance? Findings from a quasi-experimental longitudinal study Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735612471239

Schellenberg EG (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological science, 15 (8), 511-4 PMID: 15270994

Schellenberg, EG (2006). Long-Term Positive Associations Between Music Lessons and IQ Journal of Educational Psychology, 98 (2), 457-468 DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.98.2.457

Schellenberg EG (2011). Examining the association between music lessons and intelligence. British journal of psychology, 102 (3), 283-302 PMID: 21751987

Vaughn, K (2000). Music and Mathematics: Modest Support for the Oft-Claimed Relationship Journal of Aesthetic Education,, 34 (3/4), 149-166 DOI: 10.2307/3333641

————————————————————————————————————————

Notes:

† Effect only marginally significant (0.05<p<0.1)

————————————————————————————————————————

images:

1) By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Johann Heinrich Füssli: Liegende Nackte und Klavierspielerin, via Wikimedia Commons

3) attributed to the Penthesilea Painter, between circa 460 and circa 450 BC, via Wikimedia Commons
ResearchBlogging.org

The biological basis of orchestra seating

Many cultural conventions appear like the result of historical accidents. The QWERTY – keyboard is a typical example: the technical requirements of early typewriters still determine the computer keyboard that I write this text on, even though by now technical advances would allow for a far more efficient design. Some culturally accepted oddities, however, appear to reflect the biological requirements of human beings. The way musicians are seated in an orchestra is one such case, but the listener is, surprisingly, not the beneficiary.

When one goes to a concert one typically sees a seating somewhat like the one below: strings in the front, then woodwinds further back, then brass. What is less obvious is that, in general, higher pitched instruments are seated on the left and lower pitched instruments on the right. The strings show this pattern perfectly: from left to right one sees violins, violas, cellos and then basses. Choirs show the same pattern: higher voices (soprano and tenor) stand left of the lower voices (alt and basses). Why is that?

.

orchestra; seating arrangement; Nijmegen; Nijmegen studenten orkest

An orchestra I have personally performed with.

.
It turns out that this is not a historical accident but instead a biological requirement. Diana Deutsch has used a series of audio illusions which all showed a curious pattern: when you present two series of tones each to one ear, you have the illusion that the high tones are being played to your right ear and the low ones to the left ear. In case you don’t believe me, listen to this illustration of Deutsch’s scale illusion:
.
.
Apparently, there is a right ear advantage for high tones. So, seating the higher instruments on the left side (as seen on the photo) makes complete sense as this way musicians on stage tend to hear higher tones coming from their right. However, from the point of view of the audience this is actually a really bad idea as their right ear advantage is not taken into account. It turns out that orchestra seating arrangements are not favouring the hearing of the audience or the conductor but instead the musicians!
The right ear advantage for high tones is even mirrored in musicians’ brains. We know that the right ear projects mostly to the left auditory cortex and vice versa for the left ear. So, one would expect that people who play high instruments have trained their right ear / left auditory cortex the most when they practiced their craft. These training effects should be mirrored in differences in cortex size. This would mean that people sitting on the left in an orchestra have bigger left auditory cortices. In a fascinating article Schneider and colleagues showed that by and large this is the case: professional musicians who play high instruments or instruments with a sharp attack (e.g., percussionists, piano players) tend to have greater left auditory cortices than right auditory cortices. Their figure says is all.
.
Schneider; orchestra; seating; brain; Heschl's gyrus; primary auditory cortex; cortical size

How the brains are seated in an orchestra.

.
The orchestra seating arrangement mirrors not only the listening biases of most human ears but on top of that the brain differences between musicians. By and large, the orchestra is organised according to biological principles. Thus, not all cultural conventions – like the seemingly arbitrary seating arrangement of orchestras – have their roots in historical accidents. Cultural oddities are sometimes merely down to biology.

———————————————————————————-
Deutsch, D. (1999). Grouping Mechanisms in Music The Psychology of Music, Second Edition, 299-348 DOI: 10.1016/B978-012213564-4/50010-X

Schneider P, Sluming V, Roberts N, Bleeck S, & Rupp A (2005). Structural, functional, and perceptual differences in Heschl’s gyrus and musical instrument preference. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1060, 387-94 PMID: 16597790

———————————————————————————-

Figures:

1) Nederlands: Symfonieorkest Nijmegen in de grote zaal van de Vereeniging, The SON photo library, via wikimedia

2) as found in Schneider et al., 2005, p. 392

ResearchBlogging.org

When to switch on background music

Some things of our daily lives have become so common, we hardly notice them anymore. Background music is one such thing. Whether you are in a supermarket, a gym or a molecular biology laboratory, you can constantly hear it. More than that, even in quiet environments like the office or the library people get out their mp3-players and play background music. Is this a form of boosting one’s productivity or are people enjoying music at the cost of getting things done? Research on the effect of background music can give an answer.

A German research team led by Juliane Kämpfe did a meta-analysis of nearly 100 studies on this topic. It turns out that certain tasks benefit from background music. They are noticeably mindless tasks: mundane behaviours like eating or driving as well as sports. Below you can hear how Arnold Schwarzenegger uses this finding to great effect.

.

.

Music also has a positive effect on mood regulation like controlling your nervousness before a job interview. (I have discussed similar stuff before when looking into why people willingly listen to sad music.)
However, music can also have a detrimental effect. It can draw your attention away from the things you should be focussing on. As a result a negative influence tends to be seen in situations which require concentration: memorising and text understanding. In other words: don’t play it in a university library as these students did.

.

.

So far, so unsurprising. However, one positive effect stands out from the picture I painted above. The German meta-analysis mentions a curious, positive effect of music on simple math tests. This is in line with a recent study by Avila and colleagues who found a positive effect of music on logical reasoning. Could it be that the negative effect of background music on concentration tasks is found because these tasks are nearly always language based? Music and language have been claimed to share a lot of mental resources. This special link between the two modalities could perhaps explain the negative effect. It is too early to tell, but there may be a set of intellectual tasks which benefit from music: the abstract, mathematical or logical ones.
The conclusion is clear. If you want to get things done, choose carefully whether music will aid you or hold you back. Think Arnie or Gangnam Style.
——————————————————————————-

Avila, C., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2012). The influence of distracting familiar vocal music on cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts Psychology of Music, 40 (1), 84-93 DOI: 10.1177/0305735611422672

Kampfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2011). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis Psychology of Music, 39 (4), 424-448 DOI: 10.1177/0305735610376261
——————————————————————————–
ResearchBlogging.org.

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Mental Fitness – How to Improve your Mind through Bodily Exercise

.

——————————————————————————–
If you were not entirely indifferent to this post, please leave a comment.

The mysterious appeal of too loud music

Felix Baumgartner jumps

What would your next step have been?

At 39km above planet earth, would you have made Felix Baumgartner’s step off the platform? It was very dangerous, no doubt. But is this the reason why you wouldn’t have? People engage in many dangerous things. And I am not talking about skydiving. I mean the ordinary, every day kind of danger. Surely, some dangers can hardly be avoided, say road traffic (which is the leading cause of death for people in my age group). For others there is no obvious non-dangerous equivalent. But what if there was an activity with no practical value, which could easily be carried out without danger, but which nonetheless millions of people worldwide engage in? Listening to too loud music is such an activity.

Is this an exaggeration? Surely, if loud music was really dangerous, people would avoid it. Make no mistake, the scientific consensus clearly lays out the danger. Round about half the people exposed to music professionally show some hearing loss. Researchers have found worrying hearing impairments in classical musicians, rock/pop musicians, and music bar tenders. And the danger is not limited to professionals. The majority of rock concert attendees experience temporary auditory problems such as tinnitus or being hard of hearing. You are actually a daredevil when you listen to too loud music.
But this behaviour is not limited to your typical daredevil characters à la Felix Baumgartner. People flock to very loud concerts. Even toddlers prefer fast and loud music over slow and quiet music. Perhaps the clearest example for loudness’s paradoxical appeal is the band Sun 0))). Their music is without discernible rhythm, harmony or melody. Pure loudness. And still, they are successful. Hear for yourself:
The Sun 0))) concert is a good example of the mysterious attraction of too loud music but it may also offer clues for understanding why people subject themselves to it. Actually, not just this band’s concerts are too loud. Most concerts are. And so are night clubs. This is not the place to go to for a quiet night out. This is where you want energy, fun and excitement. It turns out that this is exactly what loud music is associated with. An Australian research team led by Roger Dean showed that the perceived arousal of music – whether a classical piece or Sun 0))) like noise – followed its loudness profile. Sweet melody or not, when people go out they want energetic music. And this music happens to be loud.

Beyond going out – why listen to too loud music when sitting still?

However, such an explanation can only be part of the answer. We have all seen the person on the bus with his headphones in or were annoyed by the colleague on the next desk with his music choice permeating the office through his headphones. These people are not out dancing. They look pretty low energy, if anything. And still they put their hearing at risk.
Neil Todd and Frederick Cody from the University of Manchester may offer a solution to the puzzle. They found that loud tones not only activate our sense of hearing but also our sense of balance. This happens because the nice distinction between these two modalities does not work for a structure in the ear called the saccule. It responds to head movements as well as rather low sounds. Through this structure muscles automatically react, explaining why deaf people’s muscles can nonetheless react to loud clicks whereas vestibularly impaired people’s can’t. Todd and Cody found the saccule to start reacting around the so called ‘rock’n’roll’-threshold of 105 dB. Is it just a coincidence that the beat of club music is typically in the tonal range and at the loudness level of the saccule? Could it be that the enjoyment of too loud music works through the same mechanism as the pleasure derived from baby swings, roller coasters and head banging? If so, the fun of skydiving and too loud music listening may have more in common than generally thought.
The inner ear: vestibular system (balance), auditory system (hearing) and the saccule (balance and hearing)

Yellow: Hearing. Brown: Balance. The saccule is neither.

The greatest mystery surrounding too loud music, though, are not people seeking it in quiet environments such as the bus or the office. The strangest thing is the appeal of too loud environments even when one plugs the ears. It has become more and more common to go to rock concerts with ear plugs. The obvious question is why people don’t just refrain from going to rock concerts all together and wait until concert organisers realise that they overdid it with the decibel levels.

Seeking intimacy through loudness

The final piece of the puzzle could be an idea exemplified in research done by Russo and colleagues from Ryerson University. They found that ordinary people could successfully distinguish piano, cello and trombone tones which they never heard but instead only felt on their backs. Even deaf people were able to do this. This research suggests that, yet again, the involvement of a second modality explains too loud music seeking. Hearing and vision are often grouped together because they reveal distant information. Smell, taste and touch, on the other hand, are intimate sensations only available when directly interacting with an object or person. If someone sees or hears your fiancé(e) you may not mind. But imagine if someone tried to touch or even taste him/her? There is something intimate about touch and perhaps we seek this intimacy when trying to immerse ourselves in music. Incidentally, this is also what was advertised as the novelty of Felix Baumgartner’s jump. For the first time someone can say what it felt like to break the sound barrier. Previously, people only knew what it sounded and looked like. Somehow, this was not enough. We are curious about what he will report because we attach so much importance to the immediacy of touch. For ‘touching’ music, we need loud music as our skin is a poor substitute for the sensitive ears. Through the sense of touch music can cease to be felt at a distance and, instead, become a much more personal full body experience.
Has the mystery been solved? It seems as if modern psychology offers a range of explanations for why a perfectly avoidable but harmful activity is pursued by millions of people. Loud music offers a level of energy, fun and intimacy which soft music just can’t match. If you listen to too loud music, you have more in common with daredevils like Baumgartner than you thought.
—————————————————————————————————————————-

Dean, R.T., Bailes, F., & Schubert, E. (2011). Acoustic intensity causes perceived changes in arousal levels in music: an experimental investigation. PloS one, 6 (4) PMID: 21533095

Lamont, A. (2003). Toddlers’ musical preferences: musical preference and musical memory in the early years. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 999, 518-9 PMID: 14681176

Russo, F.A., Ammirante, P., & Fels, D.I. (2012). Vibrotactile discrimination of musical timbre. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, 38 (4), 822-6 PMID: 22708743

Todd, N.P. McAngus, & Cody, F.W. (2000). Vestibular responses to loud dance music: A physiological basis of the ‘rock and roll threshold’? Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 107 (1), 496-500 DOI: 10.1121/1.428317

Zhao, F., Manchaiah, VK., French, D., & Price, S.M. (2010). Music exposure and hearing disorders: an overview. International journal of audiology, 49 (1), 54-64 PMID: 20001447

—————————————————————————————————————————-

ResearchBlogging.org

Images:

1) Photograph by: Felix Baumgartner, Twitter via the Vancouver Sun

2) The Vestibular System by Thomas Haslwanter via Wikimedia

.

.

.—————————————————————————————————————————-

If you liked this post you may also like:

Why do we like sad music?

—————————————————————————————————

If you were not entirely indifferent to this post, please leave a comment.

Extreme neural adaptation – how musical ability is lost through focal dystonia

‘There was a question of not having a purpose in life. Just floundering’.

Leon Fleischer was a true musical prodigy. By the age of sixteen he performed with the New York Philharmonic. He was called ‘the pianist find of the century’. Suddenly, in 1964, he lost control over his right hand. His fingers would simply curl up. The end of his career.

The illness which befell Leon Fleischer and about 1% of his fellow musicians is called focal dystonia, the loss of control over muscles involved in a highly trained task. It is a career breaker coming out of the blue. An investigation into the underlying neural problems leads on a journey into the brain’s muscle control circuitry and its ability to learn.
Primary Motor Cortex, M1
The human brain’s motor system which controls muscle movement is well understood. When one stimulates areas in the precentral sulcus (see Figure on the right) one can observe muscle movements. I actually once saw my own finger move when this area was magnetically stimulated. Because the role of this brain area in muscle control is so well understood, it is simply called the primary motor cortex, or M1 for short.
The organisation within the primary motor cortex is such as described in the Figure in red: inside the brain the leg muscles are controlled, going to the side come hand areas and eventually facial muscles. Localisation of function (where in the brain is x?) doesn’t get much better.
Motor Homunculus, Sensori Homunculus
Left: organisation of the sensory cortex. Right: organisation of the motor cortex.
Motor learning is nothing else than changing the brain in order to better perform a task. Roughly, one learns when an intended outcome and sensory feedback about the actual outcome disagree. Focal dystonia is probably an example of how the brain’s ability to learn can be pushed too far. This illness messes up the localisation of function in one of the most clearly organised brain areas.
For example, the primary motor cortex’s finger areas are usually nicely aligned. However, when dystonia affects a finger, its brain area moves away from its allocated place. Furthermore, the amount of brain tissue which only controls the dystonic finger is reduced, likely because adjacent fingers take over some of the finger’s area (Burman et al., 2009). Thus, ineffective control over muscles because of a subtle disorganisation of motor control areas could be the brain basis for focal dystonia.
On the other hand, rather than the outcome of learning – motor control area changes – the process of learning could also be the reason for the illness. Sensory feedback from the fingers arrives on the other side of the ridge that separates the frontal part of the brain (which includes the motor cortex) and the back part beginning with the so called parietal cortex. The area responding to touch is called the somatosensory cortex and – as can be seen in the Figure in blue – it is also very well organised.
Elbert and colleagues (1998) found that dystonic musician’s digit areas were unusually tightly packed. Their MEG study thus shares some of the findings with Burman et al.’s fMRI study. Apparently, movement execution is disorganised, but also feedback is to some degree jumbled up. The brain seems to have lost some of its nice organisation in areas related to dystonic impairments.

Subcortical differences in sufferers of primary focal dystonia. The eyes would be on the left.

Lastly, a recent meta-analysis by Zheng and colleagues (2012) adds two more things to this picture. The aforementioned activation abnormalities in sensorimotor areas are mirrored in unusual structural features. Furthermore, areas deep inside the brain related to motor planning and movement initiation also show such structural abnormalities.
Focal dystonia seems to affect all sorts of parts of the brain’s sensori-motor system both in terms of brain structure and how the structure is used. Which of these effects actually cause the illness and which are just consequences cannot be said based on these findings. Still, the unusual mappings in the motor and the somatosensory cortices together with deep brain abnormalities are an indication that the brains of dystonic musicians may have adapted too much to the demands of professional instrument playing. Neither the brain’s control over the body’s muscles is good enough anymore nor the feedback from the fingers.
There is still no reliable cure for focal dystonia. Some people treat the symptoms with botox to the affected muscles. Otherwise, retraining of the brain’s sensorimotor areas away from the maladaptation is currently being tried.
How did Leon Fleischer deal with focal dystonia? He had to change his involvement with music to one-armed piano pieces, conducting, and music teaching. Later, surgery and some treatment of the symptoms improved his condition. He is by no means cured. Still, he can finally play the piano again with both hands. As you can hear and see in the Academy Award nominated documentary Two Hands, his performance sounds wonderful, but look closely at his right hand’s fingers.
This is what a breakdown in brain organisation looks like.


———————————————————-

Burman, D.D., Lie-Nemeth, T., Brandfonbrener, A.G., Parisi, T., & Meyer, J.R. (2009). Altered Finger Representations in Sensorimotor Cortex of Musicians with Focal Dystonia: Precentral Cortex Brain Imaging and Behavior, 3, 10-23 DOI: 10.1007/s11682-008-9046-z
Elbert, T., Candia, V., Altenmüller, E., Rau, H., Sterr, A., Rockstroh, B., Pantev, C., & Taub, E. (1998). Alteration of digital representations in somatosensory cortex in focal hand dystonia. Neuroreport, 9 (16), 3571-3575 PMID: 9858362
Zheng, ZZ., Pan, PL., Wang, W., & Shang, HF. (2012). Neural network of primary focal dystonia by an anatomic likelihood estimation meta-analysis of gray matter abnormalities Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 316, 51-55 DOI: 10.1016/j.jns.2012.01.032

————————————————–

images:
1) By 3D brain data is from Anatomography. (3D brain data is from Anatomography.) [CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
2) By Maquesta via Wikimedia Commons
3) Found in Zheng et al. (2012, p. 53)

ResearchBlogging.org

Why do we like sad Music?


.

But I’m a creep.
I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.
 
Why would anyone want to listen to this?
Radiohead’s song Creep is not the exception in being a heartbreaking but nonetheless successful song. According to Wikipedia , of the ten best-selling music singles ever several are clearly sad songs: Elton John’s Candle in the Wind, The Ink Spot’s If I didn’t care, or Kenny Roger’s Lady. Music does influence one’s mood. For that reason some psychological experiments even use it as a mood induction technique. But given that people generally strive for happiness, why would anyone willingly opt for sad music?
This is exactly what Van den Tol and Edwards asked people online (article in press at Psychology of Music). The most important function they identified in the responses was (re-)experiencing affect, i.e. listening to sad music in order to induce ‘sadness, loss or grief, and occasionally other negative feelings such as disappointment and anger’ (p. 10). Other functions were also mentioned but the take-home message is that, usually, sad music is chosen because it makes people – who are often already sad – feel sad. Very puzzling.
Even more puzzling is that these objectively negative feelings were only rarely reported as being experienced in a negative way. As if music-induced sadness is not quite like real sadness. Van den Tol and Edwards interpret their results as sad music being a sort of self-regulation tool. But how does the tool work?
No one really knows. Still, there are some ideas out there.
1) The safe distance theory
Thompson (2009; see Schubert, 1996) claims that musical sadness is unlike real sadness because, well, it isn’t actually real. It is without consequence. Therefore, one can explore a feeling without becoming engulfed in it. According to this hypothesis one can listen to Radiohead’s Creep and feel like a complete loser without actually having to be one.
It is difficult to test this because one would have to distinguish between participants’ safely distant sadness and their real sadness. I doubt that any ethical board would allow a researcher to deliberately sadden a participant for real.
2) The shared pain theory
Levitin (2008) claims that musical sadness serves to ‘[bring] us through stages of feeling understood, feeling less alone in the world, hopeful that if someone else recovered so will we’ (p. 135). Like in most of his book, Levitin sees music as a social tool. On this account, the difference between musical sadness and real sadness lies in the former one being shared while the latter one is more private. Elton John’s Candle in the Wind is a good example. Released following Lady Diana’s death, it perhaps helped people worldwide to share an emotion which they otherwise would have had to deal with by themselves.
3) The Prolactin theory
Prolactin is a hormone associated with feelings of tranquillity, calmness, well-being, or consolation. Huron (2011) suggests that the body uses it to counteract grief and thus avoid descending into an uncontrollably depressive episode. Such hormonal counter-measures to negative environmental inputs are also found for physical pain. Physical pain is reduced by endorphins. Such a bodily mechanism can be exploited – as when heroin addicts fool the brain’s response to pain. Huron (2011) proposes that sad music can activate the counter-measures to actual sadness – i.e. prolactin production – without any real sadness being present. One gets the hormone’s consoling effect without the sadness and might thus actually enjoy it.
On should not forget that -even though it is intuitive – Huron’s Prolactin theory is not supported by a great deal of experimental evidence. But at least it is straight forward to test.
Of course, all three theories could be true. The puzzle of people’s tendency to often listen to sad music could have to do with the safe distance between musically induced sadness and one’s true emotions. This distance may allow prolactin to have an unusually positive effect because it is not balanced by the real sadness it is designed to counteract. On top of that, a more cognitive appreciation of sharing this experience with other people may aid the process. Targeted research is needed in order to test these theories.
So, people do indeed strive for happiness and therefore enjoy energetic, upbeat music. However, when times get rough it can seem better to switch gears and deal with the sadness first before moving on. It appears like this is where sad music could come in. According to the three aforementioned theories, gloomy music not so much leads to bad moods. It is the other way around. Bad moods require sad music.
 .
 .
 .
Huron, D. (2011). Why is sad music pleasurable? A possible role for prolactin. Musica Scientiae, 15, 146-158. doi: 10.1177/1029864911401171
Levitin, D.J. (2008). The World in Six Songs. London: Aurum Press
Thompson, W.T. (2009). Music, Thought, and Feeling: Understanding the Psychology of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Van den Tol, A.J.M., Edwards, J. (in press). Exploring the rationale for choosing to listen to sad music when feeling sad. Psychology of Music. doi: 10.1177/0305735611430433