Where does the musical thrill come from? Musical emotion explained.

For the second year running, Radio France is organizing a series of conferences and debates on the topic "Music and the brain". On Saturday, March 5 2016, researchers discussed the role of musical emotions in the performer and the listener.

Where does the musical thrill come from? Musical emotion explained.
Emmanuel Bigand et Marc-Olivier de Nattes interprètent un duo pour illustrer l'évocation des émotions en musique (Photo : Suzana Kubik)

What is musical emotion? This question was at the heart of the first day of conferences and debates "Music and the brain" welcomed with in the Radio France walls this Saturday, March 5, 2016. After last year’s first edition that brought together specialists to discuss topics such as memory, learning and health, this first day inaugurated a reflection on the relation between music, emotions, creativity and the future.

What kind of brain mechanisms are at play in the musical experience? Is musical emotion universal? What’s the secret to this « musical chill » ? These are questions Hervé Platel, neuroscience professor of at Université de Caen, Katell Morand, lecturer in ethnomusicology at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre la Défense, and Emmanuel Bigand, cognitive psychology professor at Université de Bourgogne discussed together. This year again, a musician joined the scientists in the discussion, and brought his experience and his instrument on the table. As interpreter but also instructor, Marc-Olivier de Nattes, violinist for the National Orchestra of France, was intrigued by the topic: 

"As a performer and instructor it’s an interesting exercise for me to analyse how I approach music, something I thought was entirely instinctive."

How does our emotional brain work? 

From goosebumps to chills and knots to tears, listening and practicing music can trigger many physical reactions.Yet, this vibrant emotion shaking our body primarily stems from our brain:
« It is socially well perceived to hide your emotions" says neuroscience professor Hervé Platel. "The body-mind split inherited from some philosophical theories has long tried to convince us that emotion is animalistic, subjective, and does not attest to sophisticated cognitive characteristics. Yet, an aesthetic experience, such as listening to music for example, involves multiple circuits in many different areas of our brain. It’s a very sophisticated balance between concept-grasping and sensation-decoding areas. Emotion is an important mechanism in the process of decision-making and reasoning; and our intellectual mode of operation is constantly relying on our emotional functions. " 

Whats’ more, music is a powerful stimulus. According to Emmanuel Bigand, 75% of subjects’ report experiencing the famous ‘musical chill' when listening to pieces that are not necessarily familiar to them. "_Music enters our body through the auditory pathways and we are simply forced to give meaning to the sound signal. This happens very fast - 250 milliseconds is enough for our brain to synchronize. "_Professor Bigand distinguishes no less than eight sound signal processing mechanisms, working simultaneously, including sensory and perceptual processing, rhythmic training, emotional contagion or aesthetics. The result is a real physiological and biochemical storm: through synchronization, music can modify heart rate and blood pressure.

It also determines the activation of many neurotransmitters monitoring our moods: "I should have just made a slide with the neurotransmitters which are not affected by music - there wouldn’t have been many" joked Emmanuel Bigand. "We unknowingly self-medicate through music - many of us use playlists as an energy boost or to calm down, for stress-relief or self-consolation’’

About the invigorating qualities of music therapy he implemented in the treatment of Alzheimer patients, Professor Bigand says: ‘’these patients suffer from great chronic apathy. _We offered to involve them in long workshops with dynamic music and movement. And instead of being tired, they came out in top form and even asked for more’’_To find out why, we must look at the reward circuit, one of the three fundamental mechanisms influencing our behaviour (the other two being the leak circuit and the inhibition circuit). 

According to scientist, it’s what’s behind the pleasure mechanism impact from biologically relevant stimuli, such as food, drink, sex, money or power and it is also the root of all our addictions. "Canadian researchers exposed individuals to music; the more pleasure they experienced listening to it, the more money they would give for the music, which explains the addiction mechanism. The brain regions involved in this mechanism deal with different aspects of sound stimuli, but anticipation and expectation play a decisive role, " explains Professor Bigand. 

Memory is another unavoidable factor, as Hervé Platel highlights it in his research. Music perception and memorisation are his areas of expertise. In his research exploring music’s impact on memory within brain-damaged patients such as Alzheimer's patients, he observed that elderly individuals suffering from significant cognitive impairments, leading sometimes to speech or motor skills loss, can still reproduce pieces of music they learnt in their youth, with surprising muscular agility.  

Is this body memory? As Hervé Platel explains, memory permanently retains experiences associated with positive emotions and pleasure. These are the type of experiences that musical practice can "awaken" even though cognitive faculties are indeed very damaged.

Are musical emotions universal? 

We are not all equal faced with musical experience. As Hervé Platel points out, musical pleasure and cultural background are inseparable:

“Aesthetics judgement is inevitably based on the convergence of an emotional state and memory representations of past experiences. Memory, value systems, cultural references will all be solicited when we are exposed to sensory experience".

In other words, a western listener will probably feel pleasure listening to an Indian raga, but his emotional state won’t be the same as an initiated listener’s.

So, can musical emotion be universal? 

The aesthetic dimension of music’s perception remains closely linked to western culture and should not become a way to mesure the universalité of musical emotion, says Katell Morand. 

"For most societies in the world, music is much more participative. It has a role in social organization and is perceived as part of communication. The aesthetic dimension certainly exists, but it mostly reinforces the social dimension."

For the Amhara populations she studied in Ethiopia, music acts as a powerful outlet for intense emotions. But it also is a decisive vehicle for society’s organization. 

‘’When we want to know what people from other cultures feel when listening to music, the terms used to describe those feelings are rarely identical, may it be joy or sadness. More often we hear expressions that are difficult to translate, which usually go further than just primary emotions. These are words that will imply a moral value and a relationship status."

Music also represents an anchor for people’s history, in its social dimension.« Le jugement esthétique repose fatalement sur la convergence d’un état émotionnel et des représentations en mémoire des expériences passés. La mémoire, le système des valeurs, les références culturelles seront mobilisées lors de l'exposition à une expérience sensorielle ».

Cycle Musique et cerveau : Emmanuel Bigand et  Katell Morand pendant le débat (Photo : Suzana Kubik)
Cycle Musique et cerveau : Emmanuel Bigand et Katell Morand pendant le débat (Photo : Suzana Kubik)

Music: the language of emotions? 

« For us researchers, educators, therapists or musicians, the most important thing is that music represents a tool for communicating emotions, it’s a social binding agent, Emmanuel Bigand explains,’’studies on babies show that after musical activity with a stranger, a short dance sequence for example, babies seek contact with that person. This proves that music reinforces empathy and creates social bonds. " 

Music creates empathy among strangers, it can act as a painkiller, slows cognitive aging or can even have an effect on language disorders... According to Emmanuel Bigand, music that does not affect us, does not exist. And at the same time, talking about the emotional brain does not mean intellectualizing musical perception:

Emmanuel Bigand emphasizes the fact that "We must not dissociate body and mind. Even if you may think that musical thrill comes from your gut, this sensation actually finds its roots in our brain. But when we work with musicians to increase their expressivity, we focus on posture and gesture but not necessarily verbalization. The emotional brain is a very sophisticated  and impossible to dissociate whole. And music is one of the few activities that mobilizes both our affective and our cognitive intelligence. "