Music & Emotion

Emotional reponses to music: The influence of lyrics

The ability to recognise basic emotions in music, such as happiness and sadness, is a universal skill that does not always depend on previous exposure to the musical style (Fritz et al. 2009). There is growing recognition of the variety of emotional states that music can express (Zentner et al – see my previous blog on complex musical emotions) and the speed at which we can correctly identify these states (as quick as 500ms!)

We know that the structures within music help to communicate happiness and sadness:

Sad music = soft dynamics, legato articulation, soft tempo and minor mode

Happy music = staccato articulation, louder intensities and major mode

A new article seeks to tackle the next logical question for music emotion studies – is there an additional influence of lyrics?

Bob Dylan

Most studies that present music in order to measure resulting perceptual, cognitive or affective responses stick to using instrumental works. The main justification for doing this is to avoid any confounding influences of activating the language system. This is a completely reasonable argument if your aim is to isolate the cognitive or neural processing of music. But it leaves us unable to draw conclusions about a large proportion of the world’s music – vocal music (e.g. pop, rock and folk music).

A new study by Elvira Brattico and her colleagues in Finland and Germany has looked at fMRI brain activation when people listen to happy and sad music with and without lyrics. They opted to move on from the typical use of western classical music and to use a range of music genres and timbres, as selected by 15 participants who had a wide range of musical training.

Participants selected 16 eighteen second excerpts of music: 4 sad and 4 happy that they liked and that they didn’t like.  They listened to them while in a 3T fMRI scanner and rated them again for liking and emotion (happy or sad?)


1) Acoustic analysis: The authors analysed low level acoustic features of the music itself to determine if there were any patters that marked a piece as happy or sad. They focused on the attack slope and the spectral centroid (i.e. timbre, brightness) as well as tempo and mode. They found:

Happy music with lyrics: Faster attack than happy music without lyrics and all sad music. It also had the brightest timbres compared to all other categories.

Happy music: Brighter timbres and faster tempos compared to sad music. It was also more frequently in the major mode.

Music with lyrics: Brighter timbres than music without lyrics.

2) fMRI analysis

Sad music with lyrics: Unique activation in several brain areas that were not active when lyrics were absent, including parahippocampal gyrus, amgydala, medial and inferior frontal gyri (including Broca’s area) and the auditory cortex  

Happy music with lyrics: Auditory regions alone

Happy music without lyrics: Limbic system and inferior frontal gyrus


There were few acoustic differences between music with and without lyrics. There were far larger acoustic differences between happy and sad music. The authors concluded that any differential affects driven by the presence of lyrics in the scanner would be as a result of the semantic impact of the words rather than their acoustic features.

  • Lyrics are crucial for defining sadness in music. The presence of lyrics in sad music was associated with brain activations that have previously been reported in response to music chills (see previous blog), judgments of beauty, demanding speech tasks and the human “mirror neuron” system.
  • By comparison, acoustic features are key to defining happiness in music. Instrumental happy music triggered more strong activations in the emotion-related limbic regions, in comparison to lyrical music.

Happy music was also associated with more left hemisphere activity, whether or not it contained lyrics. The authors explain this finding as being due to the acoustic features of happy music, including the faster attack and brighter timbres. There is growing evidence to support the theory (Zatorre et al. 2002) that the left hemisphere is not so much language dominant but dominant for sounds that contain fast specto-temporal transitions (including language but also happy music)

There were many other specific findings within the paper but that summary gives you a flavour of the major results and their interpretations. Overall, the paper gives insight into the effects of lyrics on the neural processing of human emotion in a range of musical styles and opens the door for a greater understanding of the potential effect of song, not just instrumental music, on our minds.


  • Diana Hereld

    This is brilliant! In my path down the rabbit hole of wondering how the amygdala is (and is not) activated, I’d actually wondered as to in ‘sad’ music how the presence of lyrics would affect its own activation. Seems just as I figured, it does affect it! Very cool and thanks for sharing.

  • David

    I wonder, however, whether the envelope/transients of the lyrics themselves have a particular impact. Is there a higher statistical chance to use words that have more “sad” acoustical features (lonely vs alone) in a sad song? How do we separate the voice as an instrument from the lyrics themselves?

    PS: Great blog

  • vicky

    Thanks David! A very good point, there is little work looking at the acoustical properties of how something is sung (which is of course different to just the lyrics on paper). The voice is a very powerful instrument in its own right and singing a song in different ways will, I know from personal experience, give a different emotional resonance. ‘Over the Rainbow’ by Judy Garland is sweet and hopeful. By Eva Cassidy it is moving and, for me, heartbreaking. There is slight showings of an interest in the sung elements of song as opposed to the remaining ‘music’ in research – for example research has shown that the sung performance impacts on sing-along behaviour far more than the nature of the song itself. Hopefully there will be more interest in this avenue in the future.
    All the best,

  • Maree Fewster

    This is very interesting research! Closely related to research I am currently doing as part of my psychology thesis. I am a 4th Year student at RMIT University, Melbourne and this year I am doing a psychological research project into music and emotions. More specifically, I am looking at the associats between emotion regulation styles and music listening preferences.

    I am currently looking for participants to do my online survey and go into the draw to WIN ONE OF 3 $100 MUSIC VOUCHERS! The survey involves listening to exerpts of music and also answering quetions about how each piece of music makes you feel, about inidividuals’ style of emotion regulation, and other general questions about how you listen to music in your everyday life.

    The survey takes about 30 minutes to complete however you can take as little or as much time as you need. Please click on the link below to participate:

    Please contact me here or email me at for more information.

    Many thanks,


  • vicky

    Hi Maree
    I have created a new ‘join in’ page for the blog that will feature the details of yours and other online survey links. I hope that you get some good participation!
    All the best,Vicky

  • Adelia Kimsey

    I would like to receive any further studies on “lyrics with music affecting emotions” if available.

    I, personally am greatly affected by lyrics in music. I would be a very willing participant in any studies or surveys.


    Thank you!

  • Frederick Frost

    About the lyrics

    In the old days the country people lived with their superstitions, because they did not have the knowledge of science. We might call science the knowledge of truth. Musical lyrics are often viewed with the same superstitions as the listeners often try to read meaning into the lyrics. As a musician I can safely say that often there are no meanings at all. Often lyrics are often written to simply rhyme. As a guitarist the lyrics I write are put to paper to simply rhyme with the meter of the music.

    Jon Anderson spoke to his own lyrics. He said he often just wrote what came to his mind without any real meaning behind them. Chris Squire, the base player for YES, said he sang Anderson’s lyrics often not having any idea if there was any meaning to them.

    To add more mystic to lyrics along came “music television video commercials”, good old MTV. The music buying public instantly tried to read meaning into the commercials. They were forgetting completely that they videos were nothing more than a commercial to sell the music. There were no more meaning to the lyrics than a Budwiser beer commercial filming Clydesdales pulling a beer wagon.

    Having that knowledge that these music videos are nothing more than a commercial, the buying public will always try to find a hidden meaning to the circus act. There are hundreds of websites dedicated to exploring all the hidden meaning in songs from Stairway to Heaven to Sweet Home Alabama.

    Why does this superstition for lyrics continue? It is another indication of the power of music to evoke emotion. We know that the reason humans like music is because of the emotion that are created from our response to sound of the song.

    Each human creates their own images in their mind to associate to the emotion. As a music listener, we can use these emotions to conjure mental images to comfort us, inspire us, or energize us. That’s why the humans like to dance to the music. With dance we can even incorporate movement to the emotion of the beat.

    In other words the human brain uses several streams of information to create an emotionally engaging experience for the listener, lyrics are just one of those streams that makes use of imagination to create the emotional response to music. In fact it has been found that lyrics are crucial for creating sad music, and acoustic features of sound are a key to defining happy, upbeat music.

    Bottom line for all the lyric websites, most lyrics do not have any meaning until the listener hears them.

    Frederick Frost-2016-0622