The Emotional Musician: Study Finds Emotions Change the way Musicians’ Brains Work

A team at University of California-San Francisco have cracked open the brain to find that when musicians express sadness, it activates the reward centre of the brain while playing happy music does not.

In a study  published this week, the team used fMRI to look at brains of 11 jazz musicians as they made music. The artists were given a picture of a woman, both smiling and distressed. The artists were asked to play music that matched the feelings they were given. It found that the musicians were better when expressing sadness rather than expressing happy music.

“It seems that the link between emotion and creativity is truly fundamental, and we suspect, ultimately responsible for the perseverance of creativity throughout human history,” revealed one of the study’s authors and a neuroscientist at the University,  Dr. Charles Limb, “Humans seem to need creativity in order to understand and examine the human experience, which is (in our opinion) a deeply emotional one. For these reasons, we wanted to understand how emotion modulates brain networks for creativity, during real time spontaneous creativity in expert musicians.” Limb wrote in an e-mail to the Huffington Post.

Limb, who was a jazz saxophonist, has also done research on musical improvisation that deactivates a key brain region that monitors behaviour. Also known as the dorsolateral prefontral cortex (DLPFC). It says that the DLPFC might be the key for the artist’s ability to enter a flow state  of free- flowing creativity.

“Broadly, our study suggests a very basic role for emotions in how our brains function during creativity,” Limb said. “It appears that the nature of an emotion — whether it is positive or negative –has a significant impact on the mechanisms our brain uses for creative tasks when motivated by these emotions.”



Differences in proportion of major to minor keys, note minima and maxima, distributions of note durations, note density.



Three-dimensional surface projections of activations (ex. PosImprov > PosChrom) and deactivations (ex. PosChrom > PosImprov) during improvisation for different emotion conditions. Results are from a random effects model, p < 0.005 with a 10 voxel cluster threshold. Improvisation was associated with perisylvian language area activations and supplementary motor area activations across emotions, as well as deactivations in the DLPFC, angular gyrus, and precuneus. The scale bar shows the range of t-scores; the axes demonstrate anatomic orientation. Abbreviations: A, anterior; P, posterior; R, right; L, left



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