I am looking for fMRI studies in which the emotional response of a person listening to music is visible in the fMRI scans, paralleled by a retrospective think aloud report of the person describing his/her emotions while listening. Are there such studies? And did they reveal something comprehensible, i.e. can one see in the fMRI scans how emotions did manifest themselves?

The idea is, that one might be able to distinguish between emotional responses due to characteristic activity patterns or modes, perhaps including the amygdala.

I know of this video with Oliver Sacks being the person, but it disappointed me: we only see that he is emotionally touched stronger by Bach than by Beethoven. But - as I have the impression - we cannot distinguish between positive and negative emotions by just looking at the fMRI scans, can we?


2 Answers 2


From meta-analyses that include musical emotion inductions, there is not much evidence that we can reliably distinguish between emotions in the brain, independent of the emotion induction procedure or meta-analytical method (1 2 3 4 5).

We might be able to distinguish emotions with specificity and reliability within an individual, but this kind of work is just starting to happen.


Short answer
Pleasant and unpleasant music activate other areas of the cortex, potentially allowing for differentiation of music-related emotions based on fMRI scans alone.

An fMRI study by Koelsch et al. (2009) investigated human emotions evoked by pleasant (consonant) and unpleasant (dissonant) music.

Unpleasant music activated the...

  • amygdala
  • hippocampus
  • parahippocampal gyrus and
  • temporal poles.

These structures are generally implicated in negative emotions.

In contrast, pleasant music activated the...

  • inferior frontal gyrus (IFG)
  • anterior superior insula
  • ventral striatum
  • Heschl's gyrus
  • Rolandic operculum.

IFG activations appear to reflect processes of music–syntactic analysis and working memory operations. The operculum, anterior superior insula, and ventral striatum are thought to be part of a pre-motor circuit for vocal sound production during the perception of pleasant sounds.

- Koelsch et al., Human Brain Mapping (2006); 27(3): 239–50

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the anwer and for the improvement of my question. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 10:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Is the distinction between pleasant and unpleasant the only one that can be made at the moment? What about more specific emotions (that might be neither pleasant nor unpleasant - or both at the same time), e.g. a "sense of tension"? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ The cited study was the only study I could find relating music and emotions. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 10:33
  • $\begingroup$ A sense of tension might be exactly this: the simultaneous activity in both (indicating) pleasant and unpleasant parts of the brain. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ The study I linked to is another one, isn't it? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2017 at 11:03

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