Feel the Music

Hello everyone, one last time! I can’t believe my time studying here in Paris is coming to a close already. It feels like I just arrived and now I only have one day of class left. This whole trip has been such an amazing experience, and I had the opportunity to see so many parts of this beautiful city! One of my recent experiences was Fête de la Musique, which was one of my favorite days here in Paris. Fête de la Musique is a city wide festival where anyone and everyone can play music on the streets of Paris. Walking around for 6 hours, I had the chance to hear many people share their music with the city. It was even more exciting when I found a band or individual playing a song that I recognized! One band played Stand by Me by Ben E. King and later I got to hear Wonderwall by Green Day.

Two men playing Stand by Me by Ben E. King on the streets of Paris

Another recent experience involving music was our class excursion to an exhibit at the Philharmonie de Paris. The exhibit called Exposition Electro was about electronic dance music, including history of the music and interactive pieces relating to the music. It was such an interesting exhibit. I really found my place in a back room that allowed you to make different beats with percussion instruments (I used to play percussion, so I spent a good chunk of my time in this room)

The Percussion room in the exhibition. You could make the instruments play on different beats to create your own music.

One of the most fascinating parts of the exhibit however was an image with a quote on a wall, rather than a musical piece. The quote read “Can a song without words say anything?” After seeing this quote, I started to really think about the way in which music impacts us. I contemplated the way I feel when I listen to music I love, or how I felt in the percussion room. Then, during Fête de la Musique I thought about how everyone in the city was spending a night enjoying and being immersed in music. To answer the question posed by the wall, I believe that the underlying emotion I, and many others, feel towards music allows us to connect to a song even without any words or explicit meaning. But, why is it that we can extract meaning and emotion out of music?

Our auditory cortex is the brain region where all sound information is processed (Purves et al., 2001). The information we hear from our ear is transmitted to the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe of the brain, which is found near your temples. The auditory cortex takes the noise we hear and converts it into sounds that we can understand (Purves et al., 2001).

Location of the auditory cortex

Now, just because we can comprehend the sounds and words being said to us, that doesn’t automatically mean we feel emotion towards it. This emotion comes from a connection to different parts of the brain. One study by Koelsch and colleagues (2005) used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a measurement of brain activity based on blood flow to those areas, in order to determine the activity of both the auditory cortex and possibly other brain regions. fMRI was taken during the presentation of both pleasant and unpleasant music. The study found that unpleasant music activated brain regions known to be important for negative emotional processing along with the auditory cortex. The study also found that pleasant music activated a structure called the insula (Koelsch et al., 2005), which has been seen to be important for overall emotional processing (Phan et al., 2002).

Another study done by Koelsch and colleagues (2018) expanded on the knowledge of the 2005 study. The newer study also used fMRI to see activation of brain regions during music that should evoke joy or fear. The authors found that there was actually emotional processing within the auditory cortex, as well as connectivity with other emotion related areas. For example, there was a high connectivity with the limbic system (Koelsch et al., 2018). The limbic system includes structures such as the hypothalamus (important for controlling hormones in the body), the thalamus (processes different information from our senses), the amygdala (important for emotional memory, especially fear), and the hippocampus (important for personal memories). The limbic system is known for being important to emotional responses, and having the body respond accordingly by hormone release, changing breathing levels and heart rate, in order for a person to feel the emotion (Rajmohan and Mohandas, 2007).

Brain structures and location of the Limbic System

The conclusion in both of these studies is that there is high connectivity between the auditory cortex and emotional areas. There is always a level of uncertainty when using fMRI. Since fMRI measures blood flow to a brain area, the image doesn’t necessarily show us the activity of the neurons in that brain region. Therefore, future studies could look more directly at the role of specific structures involved in emotion in music. For example, if a structure important for emotion is damaged, does that change our ability to emotionally respond to music? However, overall these data point towards a strong connection between sound processing and emotional processing, which helps explain our emotional connection to music.

Music has always been a really important part of my life, and I am so glad I had the opportunity to interact with some musical parts of Paris. To me, it is so fascinating that random notes and sounds can make us feel so many different emotions. With and without words, music has the ability to affect our lives profoundly.

 

 

 

 

References:

Koelsch, S., Fritz, T., Cramon, D. Y., Müller, K., & Friederici, A. D. (2005). Investigating emotion with music: An fMRI study. Human Brain Mapping,27(3), 239-250.

Koelsch, S., Skouras, S., & Lohmann, G. (2018). The auditory cortex hosts network nodes influential for emotion processing: An fMRI study on music-evoked fear and joy. Plos One,13(1).

Phan, K., Wager, T., Taylor, S. F., & Liberzon, I. (2002). Functional Neuroanatomy of Emotion: A Meta-Analysis of Emotion Activation Studies in PET and fMRI. NeuroImage,16(2), 331-348.

Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. The Auditory Cortex.

Rajmohan, V., & Mohandas, E. (2007). The limbic system. Indian Journal of Psychiatry,49(2), 132.

 

Image 1-3: Taken by me

Image 4:

Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. The Auditory Cortex.

Image 5:

Limbic System. (2017, June 07). Retrieved from https://www.assignmentpoint.com/science/biology/limbic-system.html

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