Feeling Emotion Conveyed by a Performer

Chopin’s Étude Op. 10 No. 3, Tristesse, performed by Derek Wang (11 years old).

The Musical Brain

The brain processes musical nuance in many ways, it turns out. Edward W. Large, a music scientist at Florida Atlantic University, scanned the brains of people with and without experience playing music as they listened to two versions of a Chopin étude: one recorded by a pianist, the other stripped down to a literal version of what Chopin wrote, without human-induced variations in timing and dynamics.

During the original performance, brain areas linked to emotion activated much more than with the uninflected version, showing bursts of activity with each deviation in timing or volume.

So did the mirror neuron system, a set of brain regions previously shown to become engaged when a person watches someone doing an activity the observer knows how to do — dancers watching videos of dance, for example. But in Dr. Large’s study, mirror neuron regions flashed even in nonmusicians.

Maybe those regions, which include some language areas, are “tapping into empathy,” he said, “as though you’re feeling an emotion that is being conveyed by a performer on stage,” and the brain is mirroring those emotions.

Regions involved in motor activity, everything from knitting to sprinting, also lighted up with changes in timing and volume.

Anders Friberg, a music scientist at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, found that the speed patterns of people’s natural movements — moving a hand from one place to another on a desk or jogging and slowing to stop — match tempo changes in music that listeners rate as most pleasing.

“We got the best-sounding music from the velocity curve of natural human gestures, compared to other curves of tempos not found in nature,” Dr. Friberg said. “These were quite subtle differences, and listeners were clearly distinguishing between them. And these were not expert listeners.”

Dr. Daniel Levitin’s project found that musicians were more sensitive to changes in volume and timing than nonmusicians. That echoes research by Nina Kraus , a neurobiologist at Northwestern University, which showed that musicians are better at hearing sound against background noise, and that their brains expend less energy detecting emotion in babies’ cries.

Separately, the Levitin team found that children with autism essentially rated each nocturne rendition equally emotional, finding the original no more emotionally expressive than the mechanical version. But in other research, the team found that children with autism could label music as happy, sad or scary, suggesting, Dr. Levitin said, that “their recognition of musical emotions may be intact without necessarily having those emotions evoked, and without them necessarily experiencing those emotions themselves.”

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