Happiness and Sadness in Music – part 2

Marshall Chasin
October 3, 2017

In part 1 of this blog series we had a discussion of the differences between major keys and minor keys and how this could be used to create a sense of happiness or sadness. A neurological and scientific description of emotion and creativity have long eluded researchers. What is it about a major scale that creates a positive and happy sensation, and conversely why some minor keys create a depressive and sad feeling?

This is a life-long task, or shall I say, one that may be accomplished in many life-times, especially when it comes to creativity.

Dr. Charles Limb and his colleagues, when he was still at Johns Hopkins, published some interesting research with the title Emotional Intent Modulates The Neural Substrates Of Creativity: An fMRI Study of Emotionally Targeted Improvisation in Jazz Musicians” in Scientific Reports, 2016. 

Using Functional MRI (fMRI), they looked at the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex or DLPFC.  For those who do not study neurophysiology for fun and profit, dorsal and lateral, in this context, refers to the top and outside directions and Prefrontal refers to the very front of the brain.  So the DLPFC refers to the top-side-front part of the brain somewhere behind the eyebrow and the hairline…assuming the existence of a hairline!  The Prefrontal cortex is known to be involved in planning and monitoring behavior. And an underdeveloped Prefrontal cortex has been “blamed” for some parents’ exasperation towards their teenagers’ seemingly mindless behavior!

And the “Functional MRI or fMRI” part refers to a non-invasive scanning of the brain while the person is performing a task. In this case, the task was looking at a woman with a happy face while the jazz musician was playing a piano keyboard trying to use the music to represent the happy face. This is contrasted with a picture of a sad looking woman while the jazz musician is playing a sadder song on the piano keyboard.

Courtesy of www.TheOdesseyonline.com

Well, it turned out that there was LESS neurological activity in the DLPFC while the jazz musicians were playing happy music (and greater neurological activity elsewhere in the brain), suggesting a neurological correlate for a musician being in a “groove”… as if a hand-break was engaged in that part of the brain. 

In contrast, for the sadder music, there was a greater neurological activity in the DLPFC and taken together, this is suggestive that there may be more than one mechanism at play.

This one study is just scratching the surface but it is a start.  It is simplistic to say that a happy emotion is located here and a sad emotion is located there. 

Creativity and emotion are complex behaviors with potentially even more complex neurological sources with the accelerator to the floor in one part of the brain while engaging a hand-break in another part of the brain.


  1. This fits perfectly with a story I heard from a violinist in a chamber orchestra. They performed a benefit concert at a facility for severely disabled children, and when they got to a somewhat-chaotic, disssonant, movement, a few of the kids just started wailing and screaming.
    The musicians moved on to something a little more calming.

  2. I think the correct spelling of the researcher’s last name is Dr. Charles Limb, not Lim.

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