"Feeling" music

The chorus of “Gangnam Style” makes us promptly break into a dance!  Adele’s “Someone Like You” brings tears to our eyes.  An electrifying rock concert brings shivers down our spines!

How do we feel music when, in reality, we’re only listening to it?

Girl Pop Group Performing

Music is one of the most blissful experiences we have as humans.  As my childhood music instructor said, “It is the language of the soul.”  Still, the phenomenon of how our brain perceives, appreciates, and enjoys music is poorly understood.  What is essentially just a combination of melodies, beats, rhythms, and tones can have a tremendous effect on the human brain.  When an all-time favorite song plays on the radio, we find ourselves tapping our feet, clicking our fingers, swaying to the beats, and going back to memories related to the song.  Now, let’s put on our neuroscience goggles and look at all of this: our favorite song, which is an auditory stimulus, is capable of activating our motor cortex (tapping feet, swaying body), our somatosensory cortex (clicking fingers) and our hippocampus (memories)!  How incredible is that?

There are two integral parts to music: melody (raag) and beats (meter or taal).  Melody (raag), the main tune of a song, has the ability to activate the brain’s limbic system, which is a group of brain structures responsible for our emotions.  Several studies have shown that while listening to music pieces that trigger happiness or sadness or even fear, the same brain regions are activated as with feeling happy, sad or afraid in response to real situations or words!  This explains why we tend to choose different genres of music depending on our mood.

A smiling woman listening to her headphones

A team at Johns Hopkins University recently published their study about the perception of the beats component of music.  They addressed a very fascinating question: in feeling the rhythm of a song, do our ears process the beats, or does tactile information (clicking fingers, clapping, tapping feet) contribute to our ability to recognize beats?

In their study, they recruited 12 professional musicians and asked them to discriminate between dual-beat (1-2-1-2, march-like) and triple-beat (1-2-3-1-2-3, waltz-like) rhythms.  These rhythms were given to the participants either via headphones to their left ear (auditory) or by the touch of a small contact tip on their left index finger (tactile).  The participants’ left hands were placed inside an entry hole such that the tactile stimulus was neither visible nor audible but only ‘felt’ by the finger.

When rhythms were given to the ear alone or the finger alone, the participants perceived the beats with equal accuracy of 70-85%.  These dual- and triple-beat rhythms were then given via both auditory and tactile stimulation.  When the beats at the ear and at the finger were simultaneous and synchronous, the participants were able to perceive the beats with an even greater accuracy of about 90%.  Interestingly, when the ear and the finger received incongruent inputs, the auditory perception dominated over the tactile perception.

Here is an artist's depiction of feeling 'colorful' when music is in the air. Painting by Chan Siva.
Here is an artist’s depiction of feeling ‘colorful’ when music is in the air. Painting by Chan Siva.

These experiments showed that the brain sends information of music beats (taal) to the auditory cortex along a common central pathway, with inputs coming from both the sound and touch systems.  But in the situation of conflicting inputs, the brain’s auditory center possibly gives dominance to the inputs from the ears.

Isn’t the science of music perception amazing?  We often take our brain’s boundless abilities for granted when, in reality, even accurately head banging to the beats at a rock concert is a big feat in itself!

Huang J., Gamble D., Sarnlertsophon K., Wang X. & Hsiao S. (2012). Feeling music: integration of auditory and tactile inputs in musical meter perception. PloS one, PMID: 
Images adapted from I Love Images/CorbisWavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis, and Chan Siva/Artist.


Anita met neuroscience during her undergraduate project, and it was love at first sight. While majoring in biotechnology at the B.M.S. College of Engineering, Bangalore, she had the opportunity to learn about biochemical subtyping as a method for biomarker discovery in neurodevelopmental disorders. She then pursued a Master’s in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at USC. During her thesis project, her interest in translational neuroscience further evolved as she studied a kinase pathway (PI3K) highly implicated in autism. She currently belongs to the Neuroscience Graduate Program at USC and works on components of the blood-brain barrier and its integrity in animal models of neurological disorders. Outside the lab, Anita is very enthusiastic about educational and scientific storytelling! Some of her parallel interests include consumer psychology and behavior.

2 thoughts on “"Feeling" music

  • February 9, 2014 at 8:15 am

    Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, “No more.” If someone were to say these words slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:


    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:


    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek, music theorist

  • January 14, 2019 at 10:53 pm

    thank you for this information this helps me a lot

Comments are closed.