Why live music affects us emotionally more than recordings

Pianist at a grand piano

Listening to a pianist live moves us more emotionally than listening to his music on tape. © adamkaz / iStock

Concerts are very important in the entertainment industry because live music can have a direct impact on the emotional life of the audience. For music lovers and musicians, the dynamic interaction at a concert is an emotional experience that cannot be replaced by music recordings. Researchers have now found out why we empathize more with live music using brain scans. Accordingly, spontaneous variations in live music appeal to certain areas of the brain more strongly than inflexible sound recordings.

Music is an extremely popular and expressive medium. The artists can process and express their feelings such as joy or sadness, while listeners can empathize and empathize with them through the songs. In neuroscience, music is therefore well suited to studying the affective processing of emotions in the brain. It is therefore fundamentally known which brain regions are involved: various parts of the cortex, the ventral striatum and the limbic system. However, previous studies always used music recordings. However, anyone who has ever been to a concert knows from their own experience that live music is usually much more emotionally charged than tape-recorded music due to the interaction between artist and audience.

What happens in the brain when listening to music?

A team led by Wiebke Trost from the University of Zurich has now examined in more detail what happens in our brain during live music - especially in the amygdala, which is considered the central control point for processing emotions. To do this, the researchers measured the brain activity of 27 test subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), while pianists either played them short passages of sad or happy music live or the same piano music was played on tape. During the tests, the musicians were able to observe live how their listeners' amygdala activity changed and react to this with slight variations in the music, for example in terms of tempo, harmony or pitch. The neuroscientists then evaluated the subjects' respective activity patterns and compared them.

The result: In fact, the activity of the amygdala and numerous other neural networks for processing emotions was increased in all participants when they listened to live piano music - especially during very emotional and expressive passages. “The brain activity was therefore synchronized with the acoustic and emotional quality of the musical performance,” explain Trost and her colleagues. With the “canned music,” however, the listeners' amygdala and other brain regions were significantly less active and not noticeably linked to specific emotional music passages. These observations applied to both more happy and more sad music. However, the live music containing negative emotions appealed to a slightly more complex pattern of brain areas than the more pleasant music, brain scans revealed.

Spontaneous variations in live music are crucial

“Live music can stimulate listeners’ affective brains more strongly and more consistently than recorded music,” the researchers conclude. In addition, live music leads to dynamic brain reactions linked to the music that do not occur with recorded music. Overall, the study shows that live music, due to its spontaneous variations, appeals more strongly to the areas of the brain responsible for processing emotions than unchanging sound recordings.

Source: Wiebke Trost (University of Zurich) et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), doi: 10.1073/pnas.2316306121

Recent Articles

Related Stories

Stay on op - Ge the daily news in your inbox