Songs sound less sad when you’re older
Music is a powerful tool of expressing and inducing emotions. Lima and colleagues aimed at investigating whether and how emotion recognition in music changes as a function of ageing. Their study revealed that older participants showed decreased responses to music expressing negative emotions, while their perception of happy emotions remained stable.
Emotion plays an important role in music. Even infants have been found to be capable of identifying emotions in musical excerpts (Nawrot, 2003). However, recognition of emotion in music has received little attention so far. A new study by Lima and Castro published in Cognition and Emotion examined the effects of ageing on the recognition of emotions in music. Previous studies looking at emotion recognition in other modalities have revealed that increasing age is associated with a decline in the recognition of some emotions but not others (for more information see meta-analysis by Ruffman et al. (2008)). Laukka and Juslin (2007) examined the effects of ageing on emotion recognition in music comparing young adults (around 24) and older adults (older than 65). Their results identified that older adults had more difficulty recognizing fear and sadness in both music and speech prosody, whereas no differences were observed for anger, happiness and neutrality.
The sample used by Lima et al. was of 114 healthy adults (67 female). They were aged between 17 and 84 years, and were divided into three groups with 38 participants each: younger(mean age=21.8 years), middle-aged (mean age=44.5 years) and older adults (mean age=67.2 years). Each group listened to 56 short musical excerpts that expressed happiness, sadness, fear/threat and peacefulness. Each category was consisted of 14 stimuli.
The results revealed significant age-related changes associated with specific emotions. More specifically, the authors identified a progressive decline in responsiveness to sad and scary music. No difference was found in happy music. Differences between age groups were also observed in the pattern of misclassifications for sad and peaceful music. Younger participants perceived more sadness in peaceful music, older participants perceived more peacefulness. This could be due to the structural features of peaceful and sad songs, which are both characterised by slow tempo. Future studies could further investigate this. In addition to that, Lima et al. took into account the years of musical training that the participants had. This analysis revealed a positive association between music training and the categorisation of musical emotions.
One possible explanation for the main findings of this study suggests that the decline in the recognition of particular emotions might reflect the age-related neuropsychological decline in brain regions (such as the amygdala) involved in emotion processing. Previous studies have showed that distinct brain regions are involved in the perception of different emotions (Mitterschiffthaler et al., 2007). Another possible explanation is the age-related positivity bias (Mather & Carstensen, 2005; Carstensen & Mikels, 2005). Age-related positivity bias suggests that people get older, they experience fewer negative emotions.
Future studies could attempt to identify particular brain regions involved in emotion recognition at different ages. Furthermore, since the age-related positivity bias might not be universal (older Chinese participants looked away from happy facial expressions and not from negative ones, see Fung et al., 2008), it’d be very interesting to investigate the effects of ageing on emotion recognition in music in participants from different cultures.
Lima CF, & Castro SL (2011). Emotion recognition in music changes across the adult life span. Cognition & emotion, 25 (4), 585-98 PMID: 21547762
Carstensen, L., & Mikels, J. (2005). At the Intersection of Emotion and Cognition. Aging and the Positivity Effect Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14 (3), 117-121 DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00348.x
Ruffman T, Henry JD, Livingstone V, & Phillips LH (2008). A meta-analytic review of emotion recognition and aging: implications for neuropsychological models of aging. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 32 (4), 863-81 PMID: 18276008
Laukka, P., & Juslin, P. (2007). Similar patterns of age-related differences in emotion recognition from speech and music Motivation and Emotion, 31 (3), 182-191 DOI: 10.1007/s11031-007-9063-z
Mather M, & Carstensen LL (2005). Aging and motivated cognition: the positivity effect in attention and memory. Trends in cognitive sciences, 9 (10), 496-502 PMID: 16154382
Mitterschiffthaler, M., Fu, C., Dalton, J., Andrew, C., & Williams, S. (2007). A functional MRI study of happy and sad affective states induced by classical music Human Brain Mapping, 28 (11), 1150-1162 DOI: 10.1002/hbm.20337
Nawrot, E. (2003). The Perception of Emotional Expression in Music: Evidence from Infants, Children and Adults Psychology of Music, 31 (1), 75-92 DOI: 10.1177/0305735603031001325
Fung HH, Lu AY, Goren D, Isaacowitz DM, Wadlinger HA, & Wilson HR (2008). Age-related positivity enhancement is not universal: older Chinese look away from positive stimuli. Psychology and aging, 23 (2), 440-6 PMID: 18573017