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Music gives rise to unique physical sensations in the body

A recent study revealed that music is associated with unique physical sensations. Scientists discovered that unexpected chord progressions can be felt in the heart, while tunes that align with our anticipations tend to induce feelings of tranquility and contentment. 

In this research, led by University of Tokyo and Hiroshima University, over 500 participants listened to eight brief melodies, each composed of four chords. These melodies varied in their predictability and certainty of chord progressions. 

Unique physical sensations 

The participants reported experiencing specific physical sensations, particularly in the heart and abdomen, in response to these musical sequences. 

Additionally, heart-related sensations were closely associated with aesthetic enjoyment and pleasurable feelings, suggesting potential uses of music for enhancing well-being.

Thus, music, whether it’s a poignant breakup song, an evergreen classic, or the latest chart-topper, possesses the profound ability not only to inspire, connect, and move us deeply, but also to resonate with us physically. 

Sensations felt from within the body 

“Our research shows that some chord sequences create similar bodily sensations in certain organs, particularly in the brain, heart, and abdomen,” said lead author Tatsuya Daikoku, an associate professor from the Graduate School of Information Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo

“This indicates that our interoceptive sense, that is the sensations felt from within the body, may to some degree underlie musical aesthetic appreciation and positive emotion.”

Focus of the study 

To conduct the study, researchers utilized 890 songs from the U.S. Billboard charts to create eight chord sequences. These sequences were designed to vary in their levels of predictability and uncertainty. 

A group of 527 participants listened to these sequences and then indicated on a diagram the locations in their bodies where they felt the music’s impact. They also ranked their emotional reactions to the music and its appeal or repulsion to them.

Bodily sensations and chord sequences 

From these responses, researchers were able to map out bodily sensations associated with each chord sequence.

The sequence that progressed with both low surprise and uncertainty, termed the sLuL-sLuL sequence by researchers, produced the most pronounced sensations in the abdomen and evoked feelings of calm, satisfaction, nostalgia, and empathy.

Conversely, the strongest heart sensations emerged from a sequence with low surprise in the first three chords and high surprise in the final chord, labeled the sLuL-sHuL sequence. This pattern’s ability to stir stronger heart sensations was directly tied to enhanced pleasure.

Quantifiable physical reactions to music

Both the sLuL-sLuL and sLuL-sHuL progressions were noted for eliciting aesthetic appreciation and reducing feelings of anxiety and discomfort. 

In contrast, music sequences that primarily affected the head were linked with anxiety and confusion. With this study centering on subjective experiences, the researchers are keen to explore quantifiable physical reactions, like heartbeat changes, in future research to complement the sensation maps.

“Music is not just something we listen to with our ears; it’s an experience felt throughout the entire body. I think this full-body sensation is what truly defines music. This research offers insights into how musical experiences are intricately connected to our bodies. It holds promise for contributing to the use of music in stress relief and enhancing mental health,” Daikoku concluded.

More about music and physical sensations 

As discussed above, music can have a profound effect on physical sensations, influencing everything from emotional responses to physiological reactions. This connection between music and the body is multifaceted, encompassing several key areas:

Emotional and physical reactions

Music is a powerful emotional trigger, capable of making us feel happy, sad, energized, or relaxed. These emotional responses can be associated with physical sensations, such as a feeling of warmth associated with happiness or a shiver down the spine during a particularly moving piece of music.

Music can induce physical reactions in the body. For instance, fast-paced music can increase heart rate and blood pressure, making us feel more alert and energized. Conversely, slow music can have a calming effect, reducing stress and anxiety levels.

Studies have shown that music can be effective in reducing pain. It’s thought that music can distract from pain, reduce stress (thereby lowering pain perception), and provide a form of emotional support. Music therapy is used in various medical settings, including during surgery, in chronic pain management, and in palliative care.

Movement and memory

Music and rhythm can help with movement and coordination. This is particularly evident in music therapy for individuals with movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, where music can facilitate smoother, more coordinated movement.

Music can trigger physical sensations associated with memories. This phenomenon is known as “musical nostalgia.” A specific piece of music can transport someone back to a particular time or place, complete with the physical sensations experienced at that moment.

Neurochemical changes

Listening to music can lead to the release of various neurotransmitters, such as dopamine (associated with pleasure and reward), cortisol (associated with stress regulation), and serotonin (associated with mood regulation). These changes can have direct physical effects, influencing mood, energy levels, and overall well-being.

Exercise performance

Music can enhance physical performance during exercise by increasing endurance, improving mood, and distracting from discomfort. It’s a common tool for athletes and casual exercisers alike to improve their workouts.

The interplay between music and physical sensations is a rich area of study within neuroscience and psychology, reflecting the profound impact that music can have on our physical and emotional well-being.

Music plays a fundamental role in the human experience, shaping our emotions, memories, and social interactions. It has the power to evoke feelings, transport us to different times and places, and create a sense of unity among people from diverse backgrounds.

Emotional catalyst

As discussed throughout this article, music acts as a powerful catalyst for emotional expression and regulation. It can soothe our sorrows, amplify our joys, and provide solace during challenging times. Whether listening to a heartfelt ballad or dancing to an upbeat rhythm, music allows us to process and express our emotions in a unique and cathartic way.

Cultural connector

Across all cultures and societies, music serves as a unifying force that brings people together. It reflects the values, traditions, and histories of different communities, fostering a sense of belonging and shared identity. From ancient tribal rituals to modern-day festivals, music has always been a central element in human gatherings and celebrations.

Creative outlet

Throughout history, humans have used music as a means of creative expression and storytelling. Composers, musicians, and singers pour their hearts and minds into their craft, sharing their unique perspectives and experiences with the world. Music allows us to explore our creativity, push boundaries, and connect with others on a deeper level.

Therapeutic tool

Music therapy harnesses the therapeutic properties of music to promote physical, emotional, and mental well-being. It can alleviate stress, reduce anxiety, and improve cognitive function. From hospital rooms to rehabilitation centers, music is increasingly recognized as a valuable tool in the healing process.

Connection between music, physical sensations, and humanity

In summary, the connection between music and humans is a profound and multifaceted one. It reflects our shared humanity, transcends language barriers, and has the power to inspire, heal, and unite us.

The study by Associate Professor Tatsuya Daikoku and his colleagues revolutionizes our understanding of the profound impact music has on our bodies and emotions.

By mapping the intricate connections between chord progressions, bodily sensations, and emotional responses, this research paves the way for innovative applications of music in stress relief, mental health enhancement, and personalized musical experiences.

As we continue to explore the depths of music’s influence on our well-being, we can look forward to a future where the power of music is harnessed to improve the lives of individuals worldwide.

The study is published in the journal iScience.


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