A gouty man who is drinking wine and playing the cello; the pain is represented by a devil burning his foot.

Second that emotion

Emotion is fundamental to the musical experience

Emotions are associated with activity in a network of brain structures. Music is very good at stimulating activity in these areas – a sign of the tremendous emotional impact of music.

Interestingly, emotional reactions seem to be an innate aspect of music perception. Dissonance, a combination of notes that clash with one another, is distressing. The phenomenon is often exploited by composers: a controlled change from dissonant to consonant tones is appreciated as a resolution of tension in diverse cultures, from Hindu to Western.

The Devil’s Interval – two notes three tones apart (eg a C and an F sharp), played simultaneously or one after another – automatically induces a feeling of dread. In medieval times it was considered evil and banned. More recently, it has been a staple of horror films and heavy metal (though it also appears in ‘West Side Story’ and the theme to ‘The Simpsons’).

Music’s link with emotions also explains why it is so good at conjuring up memories. In particular, one region of the prefrontal cortex responds both to familiar music and ‘autobiographical’ memories (those most relevant to us as individuals). Listening to a song heard on a first date can thus call up powerful recollections of excitement (or embarrassment).

Interestingly, this is one of the last areas to be lost in Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting that music could help people to retrieve personal memories even at late stages of the disease.

Lead image:

Coloured etching portraying a gouty man who is drinking wine and playing the cello. The pain of the gout is represented by a devil burning his foot.

Wellcome Library, London CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Neuroscience, Psychology, History, Health, infection and disease
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
11–14, 14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development