Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics

Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics

Why do people perceive music and literature as varying in their beauty based on factors such as culture, society, historical period and individual taste? The Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, founded in 2012, aims to use scientific methods to explain the psychological, neuronal and socio-cultural basis of aesthetic perceptions and judgements. The institute, which is currently in the process of being established, will be managed by a Board of Directors consisting of four scientists whose expertise covers the areas of literature, music, and the empirical cognitive and social sciences. The research programme will focus on music and literature, and, in cooperation with the Max Planck institutes for art history in Florence and Rome, the visual arts. Other fields, such as architecture and fashion will be incorporated by way of Max Planck research groups and Max Planck fellows from universities. In addition, the scientists will regularly invite “artists in residence”, in particular composers and writers, to the Institute to participate in research projects.


Grüneburgweg 14
60322 Frankfurt am Main
Phone: +49 69 8300479-501
Fax: +49 69 8300479-599

PhD opportunities

This institute has no International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS).

There is always the possibility to do a PhD. Please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute.

Beethoven with a DNA strand in the background

An analysis of the famous composer's genetic make-up has revealed that DNA data has so far been too imprecise in capturing a person's abilities

Sun coming out from behind clouds, in the foreground an implied audio wave image

New study shows how weather conditions influence music success in the markets

Young woman playing the piano, her image is reflected on the left side, sound waves run diagonally across the image.

How fingers and brains coordinate when making music


International study investigates the role of music in regulating emotions in times of crisis


First large-scale study of feel-good films and their audiences

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Drumming and singing, rhythm and sound – music moves us and brings us together. But what exactly we perceive when a song reaches our ears is something most of us wouldn’t be able to articulate. For Israeli researcher Nori Jacoby, this simply won’t do: at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main, he and his team are investigating, among other things, how people around the world perceive rhythms and pitches. In doing so, the researchers are gaining insights into much more than just the perception of music.

Music is an innate human ability. It is genetically programmed into our brains and, like language, it is a universal feature that we all share. The human mind is designed to both enjoy and create music. Together with her team at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Daniela Sammler is researching what exactly happens in our heads when we make music.

Operatic singing. Birdsong. Loud shouting. An off-pitch violin. We instinctively find some sounds pleasant, others unpleasant. But how do we decide whether something sounds good or bad? And how is sound actually processed within the brain? In an attempt to answer these questions, a team led by David Poeppel at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt is trying to break down speech and music into their most elementary components. And at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, researchers are investigating the secret of super-hits.

Winfried Menninghaus, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main, is studying how people react, not just mentally, but also physically to poetry and prose. For many classical philologists and Germanists, his work is a betrayal of their disciplines. But the scientist and his team have actually succeeded in rendering the effect of poetic and rhetorical language measurable for the first time – even in such intangible categories as elegance or such curious phenomena as the trash film cult.

Rock or Schlager? Classical or country? Pop or techno? Musical taste reveals quite a lot about an individual’s personality and status. However, listening habits are changing. Dyed-in-the-wool rock fans are dancing to German Schlager singer Dieter Thomas Kuhn, classical fans put Johnny Cash on while washing the dishes, and ravers listen to Chopin to chill. Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann and her team at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main are investigating the essence and roots of musical preferences and tracking shifts in musical taste.

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Music engagement and mental health

2022 Mosing, Miriam; Wesseldijk, Laura; Ullén, Fredrik 

Behavioural Biology Cognitive Science Cultural Studies Genetics

Is music beneficial for our mental health? The association between music engagement and mental health is more complex than we think. Intuitively, people commonly believe that playing music is good for their mental health, yet depression and anxiety are more common among musicians than non-players. We have investigated the relationship between music and mental health, taking into account genetic and familial factors that influence both musicianship and mental health problems and testing causal relationships.


Listening with attention in late eighteenth-century Scotland

2021 Raz, Carmel

Cognitive Science Cultural Studies Social and Behavioural Sciences

Music scholars have generally discerned in Adam Smith’s essay “Of the nature of that imitation which takes place in what are called the imitative arts” a unique 18th-century harbinger of the listening practices associated with theories of “Absolute Music” in the 19th century. I offer a complementary perspective on Smith’s innovations by contextualizing his ideas as part of a broader shift in Scottish conceptions of musical listening, and attention itself, in the decades around 1760 and 1770, which I trace to the psychology of Thomas Reid and the music-theoretical writings of John Holden.


Better hearing through brain stimulation

2020 Henry, Molly J.; Cabral-Calderin, Yuranny

Cognitive Science

The activities of human brain cells have certain rhythms. These brain rhythms synchronise with the rhythms of sounds we hear, including spoken language. The more successfully our brain and our surroundings are synchronised, the better we understand what we hear. New brain stimulation techniques have the potential to increase synchrony and thus hearing if the stimulation can be precisely targeted to the brain. We looked at whether such an alignment is possible in terms of stability of brain rhythms from day to day.


Beauty, elegance, grace, and sexiness compared

2019 Menninghaus, Winfried

Cultural Studies

Aesthetically pleasing objects and performances from different domains and of different kinds are often equally labelled as “beautiful”. Yet what exactly does the hypothetically shared quality of “beauty” mean in these fairly different cases? To lend the notion of beauty more precise contours, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics compared it with three other aesthetically evaluative categories which in everyday language are used as specific varieties of the beautiful: “elegant”, “graceful”, and “sexy”.


Cultural diversity in music perception

2018 Polak, Rainer

Cognitive Science Cultural Studies Linguistics Social and Behavioural Sciences

A classical experiment on the perception of musical rhythms, conducted for the first time in cross-culturally comparative perspective, shows close connections between culturally specific structures of perception and the practice of musical styles in Germany, Bulgaria, and Mali. This finding of culture influencing perception contradicts the prevailing assumption of the basic structures of music cognition to be universally determined by human biology.

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