Could Music Training Tune Your Ear for Emotions?

People convey emotions in a number of ways: through facial expressions, body posture and movement, as well as through the melody of speech and tone of voice - prosody. Musical training has previously been shown to improve skills in processing musical pitch. Could these effects transfer to the realm of speech? A recently published study provides tentative support

In the study, 24 college students were assigned to either music or art training. The training focused on identifying expression of five basic emotions (sadness, anger, fear, tenderness, happiness) in pieces of music or visual art. Before the training, the musical skills of the participants were assessed as well as their ability to recognize emotions in speech and in music. After only four 30-minute training sessions, the individuals in the music group significantly outperformed the individuals in the painting group on a task for vocal emotion recognition. However, surprisingly, the skills of the participants in recognizing emotions in music did not significantly differ.

The paper also reported findings from another study which compared the skills in vocal emotion recognition of musicians and nonmusicians. The hypothesis of the researchers was that if only four 30-minute music training sessions were enough to enhance processing of speech prosody, years of music training would most probably show a significant effect on these skills. Surprisingly, the musically trained participants in this study did not perform better than untrained peers on tasks for recognizing emotions in speech or in music.

Musically trained participants ... did not perform better than untrained peers on tasks for recognizing emotions in speech or in music

How can this discrepancy between the results be explained? The researchers suggest that the content of training is key. The short, four-time intervention specifically highlighted and trained perception of emotions communicated through music. The researchers propose that this skill is not highlighted in long-term classical music training, which according to them, is more focused on learning a technical skill than learning to detect expression of emotion in music. The researchers propose that another reason why there was no difference between musically trained and untrained individuals are the tasks itself, which may have been too easy for effectively differentiating between the groups.  

The connection between musicianship, musical skills and skills in emotional prosody perception has been under debate in research and seems to continue as an unresolved question in the field. For instance, a study conducted in 2008 showed that performance on a test for emotional intelligence predicted emotional prosody perception more than music lessons. However, another study published in 2011 showed completely contradictory results. Here, musically trained individuals outperformed non-musicians on a task for recognizing emotions in speech even when other cognitive skills were controlled. The difference in results between these two studies was suggested to arise from differences in the amount of music training: in the first study the musically trained individuals had trained for an average of only 6.5 years and in the second, the subjects were musicians with an average of 12 years of training (obviously, the subjects in the first study were also younger than the ones in the second study).

In summary, the link between music training and emotion recognition skills is an unresolved issue, complicated by the different forms that music training can take. The studies reviewed here offer interesting hypotheses on why and how music training might influence processing of emotional information. Future longitudinal studies investigating the effect of the length of music training, and its focus on technical versus emotional aspects of music, will shed light on whether and how music training could enhance emotion perception skills.

written by ketki karanam



Kraus, N., & Chandrasekaran, B. (2010). Music training for the development of auditory skills. Nat Rev Neurosci, 11(8), 599–605. doi:10.1038/nrn2882

Lima, C. F., & Castro, S. L. (2011). Speaking to the trained ear: Musical expertise enhances the recognition of emotions in speech prosody. Emotion, 11(5), 1021–1031. doi:10.1037/a0024521

Mualem, O., & Lavidor, M. (2015). Music education intervention improves vocal emotion recognition. International Journal of Music Education, 33(4), 413–425. doi:10.1177/0255761415584292

Trimmer, C. G., & Cuddy, L. L. (2008). Emotional intelligence, not music training, predicts recognition of emotional speech prosody. Emotion, 8(6), 838–849. doi:10.1037/a0014080