Music alters visual perception

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Music alters visual perception


Visual perception is not a passive process: in order to efficiently process visual input, the brain actively uses previous knowledge (e.g., memory) and expectations about what the world should look like. However, perception is not only influenced by previous knowledge. Especially the perception of emotional stimuli is influenced by the emotional state of the observer. In other words, how we perceive the world does not only depend on what we know of the world, but also by how we feel. In this study, we further investigated the relation between mood and perception.

As illusory percepts are believed to reflect the content of internal representations that are employed by the brain during top-down processing of visual input, we conclude that top-down modulation of visual processing is not purely predictive in nature: mood, in this case manipulated by music, may also directly alter the way we perceive the world.


Our visual representation of the world around us is not only affected by what we think or what we believe. How we feel has a profound impact on the ‘picture in our mind’ as well. In the present study, we further investigate the effect of mood, as induced by music, on top-down processing of visual information. 

We let observers do a difficult stimulus detection task, in which they had to detect schematic happy and sad faces embedded in noise. Mood was manipulated by means of music. We found that observers were more accurate in detecting faces congruent with their mood, corroborating earlier research. However, in trials in which no actual face was presented, observers made a significant number of false alarms. The content of these false alarms, or illusory percepts, was strongly influenced by the observers’ mood. 

The content of these illusory percepts was also strongly modulated by mood, showing that mood not only enhances sensitivity to mood- congruent features in visual input, but can even determine content of visual perception in absence of real visual input.

The results show that our conscious experience of the world may be less objective than we think. Conscious experience does not only reflect ‘what is out there’, but also our previous knowledge and expectation. The findings show that mood, as induced by music, is also reflected in visual awareness, both in biasing processing sensory input, as in the generation of conscious visual percepts in absence of structured visual input. In other words, the music you are listening to might directly alter the way you perceive the world.

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Can humans in a challenging stimulus detection task detect schematic emotional faces embedded in noise, whilst listening to music that made them happy or sad?

  • Participants were instructed to bring at least 15 minutes of songs that made them feel happy and 15 minutes of songs that made them feel sad. They were left completely free in their choice of musical style, and indeed the material widely varied between subjects.
  • Participants’ mood was assessed using the Self Assessment Manakin, a non-verbal assessment technique to measure the pleasure, arousal, and dominance associated with a person’s affective state, and is widely used in emotion research.
  • The experiment consisted of three experimental conditions: a condition in which the participants performed the task without music (no music condition), a condition in which they listened to happy music, and a condition in which they listened to sad music.
  • Participants listened to their own material whilst performing two blocks of 100 trials of the task in each of the three conditions (no music, sad music, happy music).
  • Each condition lasted at most 10 minutes, and music was played throughout the entire condition.
  • Music was played via an MP3-player over headphones.
  • Participants chose a volume that they found comfortable.





Participants’ mood was assessed using the Self Assessment Manakin at the start of the experiment, and immediately after each condition. The Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM) is a non-verbal pictorial assessment technique that directly measures the pleasure, arousal, and dominance associated with a person’s affective reaction to a wide variety of stimuli.