The Relationship Between Music Aptitude, Empathy, and Sensitivity to Emotional Prosody: An ERP Investigation

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Steele, Jessica
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Middle Tennessee State University
Research on emotional music and emotional language suggests there is at least a partial neural overlap between these two systems. Research also suggests that high music aptitude is associated with the ability to more easily and quickly process auditory cues related to emotions. Likewise, research on empathy and processing of emotions suggests that high empathy may facilitate the ability to recognize emotions. The primary purpose of the present study was to add to this rapidly growing body of work by examining the contribution of both empathy and musical aptitude to individual differences in neural responses to emotional cues in language and music. To this end, EEG was recorded in participants while they were presented with pairs of musical prime stimuli and spoken target nonsense words that either matched or mismatched in emotional valance. Participants were asked to ignore the musical prime and judge the emotional valance of the speaker’s voice during the target words. Results showed decreased P50 and larger N400 effect when words spoken with a happy intonation followed a sad music compared to a happy music. There was also a trend toward a positive relationship between the size of the P50 effect and musical aptitude. Together these results support the existence of overlapping neuro-cognitive systems for processing emotions in language and music. By contrast, no evidence was found supporting the role of empathy in the role of the processing of emotional music and prosody. Interestingly, the findings that participants were overall more accurate for sad than happy words and that the ERP effects of priming were only present for stimuli following a sad music, are in line with “the negativity bias” previously reported in the literature. Keywords: EEG, empathy, ERP, music aptitude, prosody