When Music Speaks to You, Your Brain Syncs Up With the Musician's

The more a listener enjoyed a song, the stronger the bond between brains. Valeri Vatel/Shutterstock

Ever been to a concert and feel like you've been possessed by the performance?

Your toes tap, your body sways and your head bobs to the beat. In fact, you're mimicking the performer's every move. That's probably because you've been possessed — at a neurological level.

At concerts, the brains of the listener and the performer can become perfectly synchronized, according to new research from Shanghai's Institute of Brain and Education Innovation at East China Normal University.

The phenomenon, dubbed "inter-brain coherence," is even more pronounced when the listener enjoys the music.

"These findings suggest that neural synchronization between the audience and the performer might serve as an underlying mechanism for the positive reception of musical performance," notes the research paper, published this week in the journal NeuroImage. "This study expands our understanding of music appreciation."

For their study, researchers focused specifically on the brains of people taking in a classical violin performance. They filmed a musician playing 12 short musical pieces, while looking directly at the camera — and keeping a neutral expression throughout the performance.

Researchers didn't want the violinist to tip off viewers as to which pieces he enjoyed playing the most.

Blood flow syncs up

That video was then played for an audience of 16 undergraduate students, all of them connected to brain-monitoring equipment called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIS). That technology uses light to reveal how much oxygen blood is carrying to brain tissue, as well as the volume of that blood. The result is considered an accurate measurement of brain activity.

In this case, the audience comprised only women — a necessary control, as past research suggests gender could also be a factor in music preferences.

Finally, the audience used a seven-point scale to rate the performance.

Interestingly, the researchers found that blood flow in the brains of each listener mimicked that of the performer. Brains were essentially synchronized, undergoing the same processes at the same time. And the more listeners enjoyed the music, the more powerful that mental mirroring became.

"In the present study, the frontoparietal mirror neuron system allows audiences to experience or comprehend the mind of the performer as if they were to 'walk in another's shoes,'" the researchers note.

Or, of course, do the macarena or maybe even a moonwalk in those shoes.

At the very least, the research goes a long way toward explaining why we often feel so tuned in to an artist on stage — even while standing among an audience of thousands.

It's the kind of intimacy borne of brains in singing together in perfect harmony.

"Music is everywhere in our lives, but little is known about the neural basis of well-received music," the researchers write. "This study expands our understanding of music appreciation."