Music-Evoked Emotions Influence Cognition

Feb32016-Music-evoked Emotions Influence Cognition.jpg
Music could have widespread effects on cognition via its emotional power

Emotion and cognition are inseparably linked. Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that there is considerable overlap between the brain regions involved in emotion and cognitive functions such as memory and attention. Of course some brain regions such as the amygdala could be argued to be more heavily involved in affect than in higher order cognition. However, there is a high degree of connectivity between the “emotional” brain and more “cognitive” brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, that enables interaction between these two systems. Indeed, a vast number of studies in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience have demonstrated that emotions heavily influence all aspects of cognition. For instance, our emotional state influences what aspects of our sensory environment we attend to, what we remember, as well as how we reason and make decisions. Since music can modulate the activity of brain structures important for feelings, it seems feasible that music could also have widespread effects on cognition via its emotional power.

Our minds can process only a fraction of the information provided to our senses - we need selective attention that lets the important information through for further processing and filters out or attenuates the less crucial information. In the visual domain, a popular metaphor for this selective attention is a spotlight that illuminates the important aspects of a visual scene and leaves the irrelevant information in the dark. A study published in 2007 suggests the breadth of this spotlight can be influenced by music-evoked emotions. In one condition of the study, subjects had to attend and respond to visual target stimuli presented at the center of a screen and try to ignore distracting stimuli presented at different positions around the target stimulus. Before the task, some subjects listened to music, while others underwent an arguably less emotionally engaging task of reading basic facts about Canada (apologies to all our Canadian readers!)

The results suggest that an elated mood induced by happy music increased the breadth of the attentional spotlight. Subjects who had been listening to a happy musical piece were more susceptible to interference by the distracting stimuli even when they were presented at positions far away from the target stimuli. Interestingly, these same subjects performed better in a task that required the participant to come up with words that link semantically distant words (for instance, “green” as a common word linking the words in the list “house/thumb/pepper”.) The performance in these two tasks was correlated, suggesting that a music-induced happy mood can increase the breadth of attentional selection for “both external visual, and internal conceptual space” to quote the authors of the study.         

Positive mood induced by happy music increases aspect of attention

A more recent study looked at the effects of music-induced sadness on memory and evaluation of facial expressions of emotion. Outside the musical domain, it is fairly well established that emotion can affect memory in a mood-congruent manner. Namely, people in a sad or happy mood more readily recall negatively and positively valenced information, respectively. The study showed that the same effects can be attained through music-induced sadness. According to the results of the study, subjects were more likely to recall negative words from a previously presented list after listening to sad music than subjects who had listened to a neutral musical piece. Furthermore, the subjects in a sad mood also tended to judge pictures depicting emotionally neutral facial expressions as more sad-looking than subjects in a neutral mood state. Thus, the study showed that music-induced mood alters both memory and judgment. However, the effect is not the same for everyone: effects were most pronounced in subjects scoring high on one measure of trait - empathy - and also for self-selected, familiar music as opposed to music selected by the researches. These results suggest that the effects of music-induced sadness might to some degree depend on the personality of the listener and the personal significance of the music.  

The benefits of “the Mozart effect” on visuo-spatial abilities was more likely due to emotional effects of the music

Perhaps one of the most (in)famous demonstrations of the influence of music listening on cognition is the so called “Mozart effect”. The story of the Mozart effect begun when a study published in the top journal Nature reported that listening to a piece by Mozart temporarily enhanced performance in a visuo-spatial task. Fueled by over-simplifying media reports, the study gave rise to the myth that listening to “complex” classical music can cause long-term boost in children’s IQ which was embraced by parents and politicians alike and capitalized upon by the baby Einstein CD industry. Research that has accumulated over the years suggests, however, that the benefits of Mozart listening on visuo-spatial abilities was more likely due to emotional effects of the musical piece than by some magical link between structure of Mozart’s music and cognition. For instance, one study found that if the effects of the piece on arousal and mood were controlled for, the Mozart effect disappeared. Another study found that after listening to a pop song, school-aged children did better in a test similar to one employed in the original Mozart effect study. All in all, the Mozart effect provides a good demonstration of the link between emotion and cognition, mediated by music, as well as a cautionary tale of how research findings can get distorted in the public mind and give rise to unfortunate neuromyths.

In summary, these findings not only demonstrate that emotions evoked by music can have a wide range of effects on cognitive processes but also have many implications both for the science of music as well as life outside the lab. They also speak to the long-standing question of whether music, in fact, induces real emotions in the listener. For the everyday music lover, the answer might seem obvious (“of course music elicits emotions, that’s why I love it”) but some philosophers and psychologists have argued that since music is an abstract art form that has no real-life consequences, it cannot induce genuine emotions (see for example this study). Findings like the ones reviewed above indicate that music-induced emotions not only resemble real-life emotions by evoking brain activation, but are also similar in their capacity to influence cognition. More generally, the effects of music-induced emotion on cognitive functions such as attention and memory seem highly important because people are exposed to music in their everyday life more than ever before - while shopping, driving in their car, working on their computers or exercising at the gym. The evidence on how background music affects our cognitive performance is mixed with some studies suggesting benefits, and others, negative effects. Future studies that account for things like context, personal preference, and perhaps also the empathy profile of the listener, will uncover the ways by which music alters our cognitive processing through the inseparable link to emotion.

Written by ketki karanam



Dolan, R. J. (2002). Emotion, Cognition, and Behavior. Science, 298(5596), 1191–1194. doi:10.1126/science.1076358

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nat Rev Neurosci, 15(12), 817–824. doi:10.1038/nrn3817

Koelsch, S. (2014). Brain correlates of music-evoked emotions. Nat Rev Neurosci, 15(3), 170–180. doi:10.1038/nrn3666

Konecni, V. J. (2008). Does music induce emotion? A theoretical and methodological analysis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2(2), 115–129. doi:10.1037/1931-3896.2.2.115

Lindquist, K. A., Wager, T. D., Kober, H., Bliss-Moreau, E., & Barrett, L. F. (2012). The brain basis of emotion: A meta-analytic review. Behav Brain Sci, 35(03), 121–143. doi:10.1017/s0140525x11000446

Pessoa, L. (2008). On the relationship between emotion and cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci, 9(2), 148–158. doi:10.1038/nrn2317

Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, C. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365(6447), 611–611. doi:10.1038/365611a0

Rowe, G., Hirsh, J. B., & Anderson, A. K. (2006). Positive affect increases the breadth of attentional selection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(1), 383–388. doi:10.1073/pnas.0605198104

Schellenberg, E. G., & W. Weiss, M. (2013). Music and Cognitive Abilities. The Psychology of Music, 499–550. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-381460-9.00012-2

Thompson, W. F., Schellenberg, E. G., & Husain, G. (2001). Arousal, Mood, and The Mozart Effect. Psychological Science, 12(3), 248–251. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00345