I read an article a while ago about identifying emotional content in sound. I think this is a phenomenal subject to know about as a musician, especially in respect to live performances.

I wanted nothing more than to play upright bass just after I saw a jazzband at a club one night. the guitar played a solo intro to some standard I can’t remember which one, then the bassplayer hit his first note, just one note, and it struck me like a sledge hammer. I’ve seen probably more than 1000 jazz concerts over the years but I will never forget that one moment.

Creating a show is all about how to get across the emotions of the music. the result of the below study is very interesting for that matter.

so, here’s what the article was all about.

northwestern university researchers suggest that people who have had music training will pick up emotional content in sound more accurately and quickly than people without training. the northwestern researchers now for the first time provide biological evidence thereof.

the scientists state that “quickly and accurately identifying emotion in sound is a skill that translates across all arenas, whether in the predator-infested jungle or in the classroom, boardroom or bedroom.”

here’s the research scenario:

30 men and women with and without music training between the ages of 19-35 were asked to watch a subtitled nature film. while watching they would be played (via headphones) a 250-millisecond fragment of a distressed baby’s cry. they were wearing scalp electrodes to measure their sensitivity to the sound, and in particular to the part of the sound that contributes most to its emotional content.

the research team knew from previous studies that emotion is carried less by the literal meaning of a word than by the way in which a sound is communicated. they also knew of studies demonstrating that musicians  show greater sensitivity to the nuances of emotion in speech.

the results of the northwestern study show that “musicians’ brainstems lock onto the complex part of the sound known to carry more emotional elements but de-emphasize the simpler (less emotion conveying) part of the sound. This is not the case in non-musicians.”

The musicians seem to have fine tuned their auditory systems during their music training.

the study states that “the more years of musical experience musicians possessed and the younger they began their music studies also increased their nervous systems’ abilities to process emotion in sound.”

bottom line:

musicians more economically and more quickly focus their neural resources on the emotional aspect of sound than non-musicians.

the scinetists now expect to to translate that phenomenon “into the perception of emotion in other settings”

for example, children with language disorders seem to have problems encoding the acoustic elements that musicians process so efficiently. the researchers state that “it would not be a leap to suggest that children with language processing disorders may benefit from musical experience”.

more info here