There are brain regions (X) that show stronger activation for joyful music, regions (Y) that show stronger activation for sad music, and regions (Z) that show similar activation for both.

Assuming that joyful or sad music activates similar brain regions as other tasks designed to induce a joyful or sad mood, we know more specifically:

On the other side, it has repeatedly been found that happy music is characterized by fast tempo and major mode, whereas sad music is typically played in slow tempo and minor mode.

Bringing these findings together the question arises

By which specific neuronal mechanisms does fast tempo and major mode music activate more strongly brain regions X than regions Y? And vice versa.

Is it by some kind of fine-tuned resonance (involving feedback) between the sensory input from the ears and the brain regions involved?

Are there specific theoretical (computational) models, and have they been tested?

How can - by these mechanisms - the subtle difference between a major and a minor third become so significant, both neuronally and emotionally?



1 Answer 1


In a comprehensive review that included 140+ primary research papers, Juslin & Laukka (2003) explain that there is a close relationship between vocal expression of emotions and the musical expression of emotions. Indeed, music and speech have similar characteristics and therefore can illicit similar emotions (table 1).

Table 1. Commonalities of speech and music in emotional expression. source: KTH Sweden

Wikipedia states that emotion is indeed linked with tonality in both music and speech:

The tones in music seem like a characterization of the tones in human speech, which indicate emotional content. The vowels in the phonemes of a song are elongated for a dramatic effect, and it seems as though musical tones are simply exaggerations of the normal verbal tonality.

- Gramfors & Johansson, thesis KTH Sweden
- Juslin & Laukka, Psych Bullet (2003); 129(5): 770–814

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thank you very, very much! What a wonderful - and unexpected - answer. $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2018 at 15:50

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