Science shows musicians really ARE more sensitive


Musicians have a reputation for being sensitive types, finely tuned to the emotions of those around them. In fact, it’s become a bit of a cliché in movies (with the possible exception of the many late drummers of Spinal Tap).

Normally, after a beginning like that, I’d go on to write that science has now proven the cliché wrong–but in this case, quite the opposite is true.

Researchers at Northwestern University have found that the more years of musical experience musicians possess, and the earlier the age at which they began studying music, the better their nervous systems are at interpreting the emotional content of sound.

The study was led by doctoral student Dana Strait, who conducts her research in the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at the university (and who is herself a pianist and oboe player).

Strait points out that scientists already know that emotion in speech is carried less by the specific meanings of the words being used than by the sound of those words. The most obvious example: I know instantly by the way my daughter calls “Daddy” whether I need to leap to my feet and run down the stairs prepared to dial 911 or whether I can reply, “Just a second, Daddy’s playing Scrabble on Facebook” and mosey downstairs a few moments later.

For the study, which was published in the latest issue of the European Journal of Neuroscience, Strait and her colleagues enlisted 30 right-handed men and women, with and without music training, between the ages of 19 and 35. The ones with music training were grouped using two criteria–their total years of music experience and whether their training began before or after the age of seven.

Participants watched a subtitled nature film to keep them entertained (“entertained” is apparently a loose term) while listening through headphones to a “scientifically validated emotion sound”–specifically, 250 milliseconds–a quarter of a second–of a distressed baby’s cry.

Sensitivity to the sound, particularly the more complicated part of the sound that contributes most to its emotional content, was measured through scalp electrodes, which allowed the researchers to track brainstem processing of the sound’s pitch, timing and timbre.

What they found was that the musicians’ brainstems locked onto the complex part of the sound–the part with the most emotional content–but de-emphasized the simpler, less emotion-conveying part. This was noticeably different from non-musicians’ response.

In other words, musicians’ brains responded more quickly and accurately to the emotional content of a sound than the brains of non-musicians.

This is in line with previous research that has shown that musicians are more sensitive to the nuances of emotion in speech than non-musicians. A study by one of this study’s co-authors, Richard Ashley, associate professor of music cognition at Northwestern, found that musicians may be able to sense emotions in sound after hearing them for only 50 milliseconds–just 1/20th of a second!

Interestingly, the authors of the study note that the acoustic elements that musicians process more efficiently than non-musicians are the same ones that children with language disorders, such as dyslexia and autism, have problems with.

This suggests that musical experience could be of benefit to these children–and the benefits might go beyond language processing.

Lead author Strait used to work as a therapist with autistic children. Strait suggests that early musical training might also help them and other children with an impaired ability to perceive other people’s emotions, such as those with Asperger’s syndrome.

As for the rest of us, it just goes to show that for once, Hollywood may have gotten something right, and that if what you’re looking for in a relationship is someone who is exquisitely tuned to your every emotional nuance, who can listen to you say, “The driveway needs shoveling,” and understand the depths of meaning hidden within that simple declarative sentence, then you should look for a professional musician who began playing the piano or violin at age three.

Just don’t necessarily expect them to, you know, shovel the driveway. Got to be careful of the hands, you know, and anyway, they have to rehearse.

But at least they’ll understand how you feel about that.

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