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Even the Blues Feel Good in a Musician's Brain

By Nathaniel Scharping
Jan 6, 2016 3:01 AMNov 19, 2019 9:37 PM


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(Credit: otnaydur/Shutterstock) Ever wondered why there are so many covers of “Hallelujah” out there? Sure, it’s a good song, but recent research suggests that its popularity among artists may also have something to do with how sad it is. In a study published Monday in the open-access journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers from the University of California-San Francisco used fMRI to examine the brains of 11 jazz musicians as they improvised music. The musicians were shown a picture of both a smiling and distressed woman, and asked to play music that matched the feelings in the picture shown. The researchers found that expressing sadness activated the reward center of the brain, while playing happy music did not. Paradoxically, it seems that expressing sadness makes a musician feel good.

The Emotional Musician

The link between our emotions and creativity has been known for a long time. Feeling happy or sad can play a big role in how we express ourselves artistically, changing the feel of a piece of music, for example, or the colors of a painting. While studies have previously looked at what we create when we feel happy or sad, this study flipped convention on its head to look at at how the act of expressing emotions affects creativity in the brain. Consistent with previous studies, the researchers found that improvising music shut off a region of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is a part of the brain used to control abstract reasoning and executive decision-making. This part of the brain seems to allow a musician to better enter a “flow-state,” or a state of total immersion in the music. What was surprising, perhaps, was that playing music to match a happy expression exerted a much greater inhibiting effect on the DLPFC in musicians than sad expressions, an indication that players entered a deeper flow state. Sad music, conversely, stimulated the substantia nigra, an important reward center in the brain that happy music didn't activate. Although the outward task was the same — playing a piece of music — the regions of the brain activated in each case were different. In essence, the musicians' brains fired differently depending on the emotional theme of the song.

Music Heals In Different Ways

The researchers say their findings indicate that we gain satisfaction from creating music in more than one way. Happy music that suppresses the DLPFC creates a sense of immersion in the music, being in the zone, so to speak, leading to feelings of gratification. Sad music, on the other hand, directly stimulates the reward center of the brain, releasing the chemical dopamine and making us feel good. While both kinds of music lead to positive feelings, the neural networks which produce these feelings are different. While the link between sad music and pleasure may seem counterintuitive, recent research has suggested that we do indeed enjoy experiencing expressions of sadness, likely because we are able to view it from an emotional distance. The researchers' study hints at the some of the reasons that we are driven to create. If expressing emotions, a core component of art, makes us feel good, we will be driven to do it more often. And if expressing certain emotions creates more reward, we would expect to see them represented in art more often. Maybe that’s why it seems like every American Idol contestant ever has sung “Hallelujah.”

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