Chord sequences in music trigger sensations in different parts of the body

Due to the advances in modern streaming, music is the most accessible its been in human history. Many of us have the ability to set the soundtracks of our lives – whether it’s a banger to get going in the morning, or a playlist to calm down before bed.

Now, new research has found that listening to certain types of music can even create the feeling of sensations in specific organs of the body.

“Some chord sequences create similar bodily sensations in certain organs, particularly in the brain, heart and abdomen,” says Tatsuya Daikoku, from the Graduate School of Information Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo, Japan, who is first author of a new paper in the journal iScience.

“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.”

Researchers generated 8 short tunes based on 890 songs on the US Billboard music charts – each made up of varying sequences of the same 4 chords, with a mix of surprising and unsurprising, and certain and uncertain, chord progressions.

They played these snippets to 527 study participants who were then asked to indicate on an image where in their body, and how strongly, they felt the music. Combining these responses created a kind of heat map of the body for each sequence of chords.

Participants also ranked their top five emotional responses to each sound from a list of options, as well as indicating how much they felt the music appealed to or repulsed them. 

The study revealed that a predictable tune, where all four chords progressed with low surprise and low uncertainty, elicited the strongest abdominal sensations and also brought out feelings of calmness, relief, satisfaction, nostalgia and empathy.

Of the eight chord sequences, this tune elicited the strongest reported sensations in the abdomens of the study participants. How does it make you feel? Credit: 2024 Daikoku, Tanaka and Yamawaki/iScience

Music which surprises– where the first three chords were played with low surprise and low uncertainty, but the final fourth chord elicited high surprise and low uncertainty – produced sensations in the heart and were closely linked to aesthetic appreciation and feelings of pleasure when listening to music.

Of the eight chord sequences, this tune elicited the strongest reported sensations in the hearts of the study participants. Credit: 2024 Daikoku, Tanaka and Yamawaki/iScience

In contrast, sequences which generated strong sensations in the head were significantly associated with feelings of anxiety and confusion.

“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,” says Daikoku.

“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.”

Next, the team will investigate whether the subjected sensations and emotions reported in this study line up with measurable physical responses, such as changes in heartbeat.

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