Music in the Brain

The Hearing Process

The process of listening to music is a complicated and interesting experience.  It starts in the ears, which are separated into three sections: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear.  The outer ear is comprised of the ear canal and the eardrum.  When sound travels down the ear canal, it hits the eardrum and causes it to vibrate.  The middle ear consists of bones called ossicles behind the eardrum; these small bones connect the eardrum and the base of the inner ear.  Movement from the eardrum causes the ossicles to vibrate, which in turn causes fluid in the inner ear to move.  The movement of fluid in the inner ear, or cochlea, causes tiny structures known as hair cells to change.  The hair cells (which also dictate pitch) send an electrical signal up the auditory nerve to the brain, where the brain processes these signals as sound. (ASHA)

The Brain’s Reaction

Once the limbic system and frontal lobe determines how the music is perceived by the individual, the brain sends out several chemicals into the body, and these chemicals produce feelings in the person.  These chemicals are:

  • Dopamine – The “pleasure chemical,” it controls the brain’s pleasure and reward centers.  Music causes this to influence people’s emotions in the same way that eating a food they like would, or feeling in love would. (Steakley)
  • Norepinephrine – This produces feelings of excitement and arousal, the type of feeling a person would get when listening to dance music. (Steakley)
  • Serotonin – A calming chemical, it helps the body and mind relax. (Obringer)

The limbic and paralimbic systems of the brain, which are largely responsible for the listening process and the perception of music, control the three principal aesthetic responses while processing music:

  • Emotions
  • Judgments
  • Preference (Brattico 49)

In order to process melody, many “higher” areas of the brain, such as the frontal lobe, must be involved.  The brain stem is also involved, but in a very primitive and instinctual form.  The auditory cortex is the main interpreter of music in the brain, however.  Much of what the auditory cortex perceives is actually based on what has preceded in the music.  Specifically, the right-brain auditory cortex analyzes harmonies and rich overtones, while the left-brain auditory cortex analyzes relationships in successions of sounds.  The left-brain is also responsible for understanding the sequence of words and ideas, similar to what it does with music.  Some higher areas of the brain are even known to help determine perfect pitch.  An area of the brain, called the planum temporale, is not only used to decipher perfect pitch, but is also bigger in the brains of individuals with that talent.  For the auditory cortex to evaluate notes and melodies, both long-term and short-term memory, as well as learning processes, are said to be involved.  While short-term memory is applied in listening to a certain piece at a certain time, long-term memory is responsible for the recognition of relationships between different pieces and different styles of music. It is proven that certain melodic and harmonic movements are more pleasing to the brain.  In this sense, the brain is simply an organizer of ideas.  Of course, in order for music to generate an emotional response, the areas of the brain responsible for emotional responses are involved.  These areas are the frontal lobe and the limbic system, as mentioned earlier.  They are the parts of the brain that release endorphins (such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin) into the body.  With all these areas of the brain involved, an emotional stimulus from music can be triggered. If one area is in disarray, the entire process is lost, and the losses are found to be immense. (Sancar)

Music’s Influence on the Brain

Music also has the power to influence people’s emotions and has long-term effects on the brain.  In a study done by Barbara Kráhe and Steffen Bieneck, 111 participants listened to pleasant, aversive, or no music before receiving a provocation.  Listeners who had heard pleasant music were shown to be in a more positive state, while the ones who listened to aversive music seemed to feel negative, and the ones who had listened to no music experienced no change in their emotions. (Kráhe 271)  In a study done by Oliver Sacks of NYU, several patients were found to have “musical hallucinations.”  One such patient had what Sacks called “musical eyes.”  The patient, a 77-year-old woman who had played piano, went blind in the lower parts of her eyes due to glaucoma damage.  She began to see musical notes and clefs, but only where her blindness existed.  As another patient of his who was beginning to lose his vision, began to see music in staves as well.  The notation was realistic, according to the patient, and he wondered if he was notating his own music, but then he realized that the music was unreadable and unplayable, with four-six staves and impossibly complex chords with horizontal rows of sharps and flats.  It was a melting pot of musical notation, with no real meaning. Because studying and listening to music requires a great deal of repetition, it can be assumed that music can create a neural imprint on a person’s brain, giving him/her these hallucinations. (Sacks)

While music can influence emotions, it is more of a reflector of emotions than a changer of them, especially when it comes to the brain’s processing of it.  Music is so diverse, with its different pitches, rhythms, harmonies and dynamics; it’s no wonder that every person finds something to like.  What’s interesting is that a familiarity with a certain type of music actually influences a person’s liking of it. In a study done by several scientists writing for PloS One Journal, participants were given an fMRI while listening to certain types of music.  The results showed that the limbic and paralimbic regions of the brain were much more active when listening to familiar music than unfamiliar music. (Pereira 7)

People also have the ability to differentiate between music and sound.  Can we assume that a single note played from a good musician doesn’t contain music? We hear that note, and our brains give that sound the label: music. (Yadegari)

Music clearly has an enormous influence on the brain.  It’s no wonder humans enjoy listening to music, considering how many things music can do to the brain, and how many areas of the brain are involved in perceiving music.