Music can make our hearts beat faster and our palms sweat. Why does something as abstract as music consistently provoke such intense reactions? USC researchers are using artificial intelligence to find out.

In a recent study, they played unfamiliar pieces of music and monitored how volunteers’ hearts and brains — and even their sweat glands — responded. “Taking a holistic view of music perception [and] using all different kinds of musical predictors gives us an unprecedented insight into how our bodies and brains respond to music,” says the study’s lead author Tim Greer, a computer science PhD student and a member of the USC Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory.

Their findings are about more than just quirky science: Music has been shown to lower anxiety and ease pain, so related discoveries might eventually help patients with well-being and mental health disorders. “From a therapy perspective, music is a really good tool to induce emotion and engage a better mood,” says Assal Habibi, an assistant professor of psychology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences who worked on neuroimaging research for the study. “Using this research, we can design musical stimuli for therapy in depression and other mood disorders. It also helps us understand how emotions are processed in the brain.”

You’ll find a few tidbits from their work below.

Music and Some of Its Emotional and Physical Effects

A song’s beat — specifically how fast and loud it is — plays a huge role in stimulating parts of your brain. Researchers also found that songs like Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” which changes elements like rhythm and the type of sounds, lead to a strong uptick in neural activity.

When a new instrument is introduced in a song, or if the music starts to climb into a soaring crescendo, listeners begin to sweat more. The more instruments are added — like in the song “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield — the stronger the response.

Listeners associate specific emotions with certain notes. An F-sharp in G minor correlates with sadness, for example. Researchers also found that a song with contrasting volumes — like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which has quiet verses followed by loud choruses — gives listeners more emotional ups and downs.

Curious? Learn more about the USC music study online.

HealthScience/TechnologyArtificial IntelligenceMusic