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Nothing More Than Feelings

Monday, June 22, 2009

A musician is more likely to be in touch with human emotions, finds a new study at Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. Neuroscientist Nina Kraus of the university's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory explains how musical training sensitizes people to everything from a baby's cry to a comedian's one-liners. Also joining us is Dave Soldier, a musician and neuroscientist at Columbia University

Tell us: Are you a musician? Do you work or live with one? Do you think musicians have a heightened sensitivity to emotion?


Nina Kraus and Dave Soldier

Comments [27]

Cliff Sloane from Korat, Thailand

To make the extravagant (to me) claim that there is any correlation between emotion and musicality, one would have to study whether musicians can detect the intentions of sounds. To be scientifically rigorous, a study would need to see whether subjects can tell the difference between intentional sounds (ie, a baby crying) and sounds that might sound like intentional ones (steam radiators that sound like a baby crying). Without this extra check, it sounds like the same relentless ethnocentrism that so many brain researchers seem to be falling prey to. In my humble opinion.

Jun. 28 2009 12:12 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

The additional plus of having "skills" -- even if you don't work at it professionally -- is that you can save yourself money over the course of your life, by doing things for yourself instead of having to pay others to do it.

Anyone who learns even one skill has learned to with tools and solve problems. He/she has a step up on learning other skills with tools.

Jun. 25 2009 11:12 AM

I'm a musician, and I don't think "musicians" are particularly more attuned to emotions. They may process musical stimuli differently than "nonmusicians," but i'm not sure that says anything about the way in which they perceive emotions. It may simply mean that they are more sensitive to changes in sound because they deal with it on a daily basis. "Nonmusicians" may surprise you sometime -- they hear more than we think they do!

Jun. 23 2009 12:13 PM
make mine mocha from NYC a trained and working musician I am always frustrated when others (including musicians) can not hear the emotional tension in chord changes....the ending of Mathis de Maler, the Firebird, or even Dvorak's Carnival Overture will always cause unexplainable feelings in me. There is a delinite connection to emotional sensitivity and sound moving in time. The tune "I'm Not Going" from Dream Girls does not need any lyrics to prove the point.................great ending by the way!!

Jun. 22 2009 10:00 PM
Linda McCracken from Westport, CT

The research mentioned in the broadcast about passive listeners not having as much of the emotional sensitivity and that the more "complex" the sound, the more of a reaction. Well, then how does one explain the audience extreme reaction after the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (rioting in the hall and outside the theatre)? Perhaps the majority of concert goers in the early part of the 20th century were also musicians, though not professional.

Jun. 22 2009 03:19 PM
larry from morristown,nj

My sister is a cognitive neurioscientist who studies cultural auditory differences in psychology. I wonder if musics effect on psychology cuts through the cultural differences in spoken language, and is somehow more universal?

Jun. 22 2009 02:41 PM
mozo from nyc

Anne and Suki --

My dad was a musician and I know several other working musicians. All of them would agree with both of you. I lived with a jazz singer for two years and she told me she would NEVER gat involved with another musician becuase they are emotional jerks. Actually, she used another anatomic term involving holes. And she was from Korea, so it's not just here.

Jun. 22 2009 02:38 PM
Laurie from Brooklyn

Were drummers included in this study? How does their emotional sensitivity stack up to other musicians?

Jun. 22 2009 02:35 PM
May from NYC

I'm a mainly a visual artist, brought up in a family of musicians. What I've always found interesting in visiting a household of non-musicians is that it's often missing the quick banter of words, little musical quips, musical non-verbal jokes, and the variety of pitches used in conversation. The artist friends I know are one-dimensional by contrast.

I am a musician at heart, and though I have made my profession in the visual arts, I feel the power of the deepest emotional experience in the arts comes from music - possibly because it it universal.

Jun. 22 2009 02:33 PM

As a trained musician (conservatory trained), I feel as though I may be TOO emotionally sensitive. Any subtle negativity or positivity in someone's tone of voice shades my opinion of them.
i never found this ability to be helpful in social relationships, but i am finding it very useful when talking with patients as a full time nurse.

Jun. 22 2009 02:31 PM
Esther Shin from NY, NY

As a trained musician (conservatory trained), I feel as though I may be TOO emotionally sensitive. Any subtle negativity or positivity in someone's tone of voice shades my opinion of them.
i never found this ability to be helpful in social relationships, but i am finding it very useful when talking with patients as a full time nurse.

Jun. 22 2009 02:31 PM
Suki from Williamsburg

Anne - my sentiments exactly.

Jun. 22 2009 02:30 PM
birder from brooklyn

oh yeah i was also self taught at both.

Jun. 22 2009 02:29 PM
Maggie from Manhattan

Great research! Looking forward to reading the paper. I'm a PhD student in neuroscience and a violinist; my partner is a biologist and guitar player. We're constantly bouncing off one another after one of us has had a bad day-- while we seem VERY 'tuned in' to the emotions in each others' voices we never know what the other person is upset about, and tend to react to the emotion we're sensing before knowing the rational reason for it. After five years together, we're finally learning to communicate with words instead of falling into our involuntary reaction to tonal perceptions!

Jun. 22 2009 02:29 PM

I do not doubt that musicians (and other artists in general, of which I am one) have a heightened sensitivity. But I found that it is most commonly applied to themselves. That is - they are quick to point out hurt feelings and yet cannot take criticism on the same level.

Jun. 22 2009 02:29 PM
birder from brooklyn

as a visual and musical artist i think i was already sensitve to this things and was always going to be but that exploring these things more brought more out of me.

Jun. 22 2009 02:28 PM
Suki from Williamsburg

This is ridiculous. So many of the musicians I know are almost deaf.

Jun. 22 2009 02:28 PM
gary odendahl from fairfield, nj

I was wondering if there is a similar correlation between people that are very much involved in the music scene or that have a passion for music but don't necessarily play in instrument.

Jun. 22 2009 02:25 PM
bethe halligan from east village

I am a speech pathologist working with children with communication disorders, especially the autistic spectrum. Perhaps the experience of lack of "people skills" has to do with a hyper sensitivity in some musicians, requiring them to shut down or "protect" their sensory sytems.

Jun. 22 2009 02:25 PM
desdemona finch

Isn't there a downside to all this sensitivity? I've played music my whole life but I'm very glad I have another "career" because being around all that emotional sensitivity all the time would have driven me even further beyond the bend than I already have been.

Jun. 22 2009 02:25 PM
mozo from nyc

I have seizures when I listen to Alabama, too.

Jun. 22 2009 02:24 PM
Jeffrey from upper west side

And painters are more sensitive to color, and dancers to movement.

Jun. 22 2009 02:23 PM
Sunny Ozell from Brooklyn

My folks got me playing the violin at age four and I studied both voice and violin into college. And I can absolutely attest to having a "heightened sensitivity" to emotion...which at times can be rather uncomfortable. I'm sure it also has made me a more empathetic person, but my tolerance to certain "triggers" (a crying baby) can be very, very low in relation to those around me.

Jun. 22 2009 02:22 PM
Jeffrey from upper west side

And artists are more sensitive to color, and dancers more sensitive to movement.

Jun. 22 2009 02:21 PM
Michelle from Chicago/Los Angeles

This explains why I dated musicians and surrounded myself with musicians my entire life; starting in the 7th grade.
P.S. I am a musician and married a musician.

Jun. 22 2009 02:13 PM
Dave Soldier

Here's a paper showing that indeed Chinese musicians do seem to process tones in speech differently than Western musicians. ERP refers to a spike in the EEG that happens when something sounds "odd".

Brain Res. 2009 Mar 31;1263:104-13.
Dissociable pitch processing mechanisms in lexical and melodic contexts revealed by ERPs.
Nan Y, Friederici AD, Shu H, Luo YJ.

State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning, Beijing Normal University, Hai-Dian District, Beijing, PR China.

The current ERP study examined the neural substrates for pitch processing in music and in tonal language with phrases ending in either congruous or incongruous pitches. In a tonal language, like Chinese, pitch is lexically relevant as it can change the meaning of words, and it could therefore be hypothesized that pitch information under this condition is processed differently from musical pitch. Female Chinese musicians were chosen as listeners for their ample exposure to music and a tonal language. Pitch violations in both domains were associated with a frontally distributed late positive component (LPC). In addition to evoking an N400 for language condition, pitch processing as revealed by the LPCs is left lateralized for tonal language and right lateralized for music. We propose that our data may imply different brain resources engaging in pitch processing depending on whether its function is lexical, as in a tonal language like Chinese, or musical in nature.

Jun. 22 2009 01:47 PM
Enrique from Elizabeth, NJ

...i conform a duet where i do the music, and my partner sings. I do all the instruments bass, guitars, piano, and percussion and she ONLY add voice (bein what i call a natural without music knowledge) -she can't execute any instrument at all-...
We're also a couple and i do feel that she's a bit (well very) on the frigid side. Any correlation?

Jun. 22 2009 12:15 PM

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