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Being moved by listening to unfamiliar sad music induces reward-related hormonal changes in empathic listeners

Eerola, T. and Vuoskoski, J. K. and Kautiainen, H. and Peltola, H.-R. and Putkinen, V. and Schäfer, K. (2021) 'Being moved by listening to unfamiliar sad music induces reward-related hormonal changes in empathic listeners.', Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1502 (1). pp. 121-131.


Many people enjoy sad music and the appeal for tragedy is widespread among the consumers of film and literature. The underlying mechanisms of such aesthetic experiences are not well understood. We tested whether the pleasure induced by sad, unfamiliar instrumental music is explained with either a homeostatic or a reward theory, which postulate the opposite patterns of changes in the key hormones. We report an experiment where 62 women listened to sad music while serum prolactin (PRL) and oxytocin (OT) and stress marker (CORT, ACTH) concentrations were collected. Two groups of participants were recruited on the basis of low and high trait empathy. In the high empathy group, the prolactin and oxytocin levels were significantly lower after the music condition in comparison to silence. This group also reported an increase of positive mood after the music condition and higher ratings of being moved than the low empathy group. None of the stress markers showed any changes across the conditions or groups. The hormonal changes are not consistent with a homeostatic theory proposed by Huron (2011), while exhibiting a pattern expected of general reward. The findings illuminate how unfamiliar and low arousal music may give rise to pleasurable experiences.

Item Type:Article
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Publisher statement:© 2021 The Authors. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of New York Academy of Sciences This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Date accepted:16 June 2021
Date deposited:20 August 2021
Date of first online publication:17 July 2021
Date first made open access:20 August 2021

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