I'm looking for research surrounding the scientific study of music and emotion and its effects on the brain. In particular, are there known parts of the brain which activate when playing or listening to music?

Is there a specific field of study based around music and cognitive science?

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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisS I think we're all excited to contribute to this question, and what's really being stated here in the comments is that something like Given the interconnection between the limbic system and the auditory cortex is it plausible to conclude that someone with a brain injury loses some of the emotional value of their favorite song...? is more likely to receive an quality answer than explain the auditory anatomy. Entire textbooks have been written on auditory physiology, so "band-limiting" ;) your question will help make it more tractable. $\endgroup$ Apr 15, 2012 at 2:26
  • $\begingroup$ @ChuckSherrington Ok, I didn't know it was this well researched and so I guess I was looking for the part of neuroscience that deals with music + emotion. I'll rephrase for that. $\endgroup$
    – Chris S
    Apr 16, 2012 at 8:59
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    $\begingroup$ The comments on this question started to get out of hand a bit so I cleaned them up. If anyone objects, please contact me in chat (where such discussions belong) or on Meta and I can post the entire comment thread in one of those places for continued discussion. Thanks! I left the most useful comment (which is also the reason I downvoted): Can you edit your question and ask about music + emotion as you commented? $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Apr 16, 2012 at 20:57

2 Answers 2


Well it depends what you mean by "field of study", but yes there is significant Cognitive Science research on Music and emotional arousal and/or brain activity. In particular Cognitive Neuroscience is most relevant to actually mapping brain activations involved with various forms of music appreciation and creation.

A good study specifically on music and emotion is Investigating Emotion With Music: An fMRI Study by Stefan Koelsch et all. They investigate listening to music and have nice heatmaps of brain activity during listening. There's many other papers exploring the activity pattern when listening or creating music, but the conclusion of this article sums up some of the major areas:

In the present study, activations during the perception of unpleasant music were observed within an extensive neuronal network of limbic and paralimbic structures comprising the amygdala, hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus, and temporal poles. Although clear increases of BOLD signals were observed in those structures in response to unpleasant music, strong signal decreases were also measured in response to pleasant music. This indicates that these structures respond to both pleasant and unpleasant auditory information with emotional valence, and that listening to music has the capacity to up- as well as down-regulate neuronal activity in these structures.


During the presentation of the pleasant music, activations were observed in the ventral striatum, the anterior superior insula, and in the Rolandic operculum.

So interestingly, music with different emotional context results in different patterns and locations of brain activation. The full article has more specific information, and you can feel free to ask about more specific patterns of activation in regards to more specific stimuli.


This answer is meant to add more information in addition to the one above. Also, I have not seen the original comment thread, and apologize in advance if I have given redundant information.

Fields that look at music and the brain

Researchers in many fields have an interest in understand how music is processed by the brain and more particularly how emotion ties in. These can include:

  • (auditory) cognitive neuroscience

  • (music) psychology and psychoacoustics

  • music therapy

  • music technology (perhaps look into Music Information Retrieval, as work on emotional/mood classification is growing)


Different fields may focus on different aspects and may use different methods and techniques, but can also have overlaps. Wikipedia has a brief article on music cognition as an umbrella term/field.

Areas involved with music performance and perception

The actual focus of music cognition research can be further divided (as you have in your question), into research on music performance, music perception, or interactions with each other and other modalities, to name a few.To answer your first question, music performance will inherently rely on basic motor networks and often looks at the brains of musicians compared to amateurs or non-musicians. Music perception relies on auditory circuits at a lower level. As language cognition also involves the auditory system, studies often look what/where the differences occur. You can typically find chapters about the motor or auditory system in textbooks. In addition, there are other higher level processes and their associated areas that may be involved (planning, memory, classification, recognition etc.). If you are further interested, here is one review on a few recent developments in music performance (Thompson et al., 2006)[pdf]. Here is another that covers recent work on the perceptual side (Koelsch & Siebel, 2005).

Music and Emotion

To add to the above answer and provide you with more references, Chapter 5 of (Hunter & Schellenberg, 2010) provides an overview of the studies that show how music elicits emotional responses. Interestingly, there is evidence that the emotional response to music is separate pathway than non-emotional judgement of music. This was seen in a patient, who after brain damage had significant impairments in non-emotional music tasks (recognizing melodies, sing more than one pitch, etc.) but intact emotional processing of music (Peretz et al., 1997).


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