Musicians detect emotion in sound acutely

March 3, 2009 at 5:58 PM
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CHICAGO, March 3 (UPI) -- Musicians, who use all their senses to practice and perform a musical piece, have auditory systems "finely tuned" to emotions, U.S. researchers suggest.

"Previous research has indicated that musicians demonstrate greater sensitivity to the nuances of emotion in speech," Richard Ashley, associate professor of music cognition at Northwestern University, says in a statement.

Thirty right-handed men and women, between the ages of 19 and 35, with and without music training participated in the European Journal of Neuroscience study. Subjects with music training were grouped using two criteria -- years of musical experience and onset age of training -- before or after age 7.

Study participants were asked to watch a subtitled nature film to keep them entertained while they were hearing, through earphones, a 250-millisecond fragment of a distressed baby's cry. Sensitivity to the sound, and in particular to the more complicated part of the sound that contributes most to its emotional content, was measured through scalp electrodes.

The study, published in the European Journal of Neuroscience, finds that musicians' brain stems lock onto the complex part of the sound known to carry more emotional elements but de-emphasize the simpler -- less emotion conveying -- part of the sound. However, this was not the case in non-musicians.

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, primary author Dana Strait, a doctoral student, says.

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