May 22, 2008

The Neuroscience of Music

A harsh reality hit me one day sophomore year of high school when a fellow classmate expressed to me that she enjoyed absolutely nothing about Led Zeppelin … what?! I couldn’t believe it. They were my obsession. I suppose I hadn’t really given thought to the fact that not everyone shared my taste in music. Moreover, some don’t even enjoy music at all (this still perplexes to me). While much has been studied about how the brain processes and creates memory of music, there is scarce literature about the brain as an emotional medium in response to music.

There is no doubt that music can evoke different emotions in the listener. I remember the first time the Grateful Dead made me giggle and Aretha Franklin gave me shivers. We see humans utilize music for an emotional outcome from an early age. In fact, there have been multiple studies done on the reaction of infants to the lullabies, and even the sing-songy “baby talk,” that mothers of all cultures use to comfort their children. One study found that the attention span of 6-month-old infants was held much longer when their mother sang lullabies to them versus talking to them through a monitor (Trehub, 2001). However, it is thought that the ability to differentiate between songs that “sound happy” or “sound sad” (controlling for tempo, pitch range, volume and meter across various arrangements and modes) doesn’t occur until between the ages of five and eight (Gerard and Gerken, 1995). While many other species utilize sounds and songs for everything from getting a meal to getting a mate, it seems that only humans utilize sound to evoke emotional responses. So what is it about combining the melodies, tempos, and dynamics of music (with or without lyrics) that can trigger emotions that train whistles, lectures, and other noises can’t?

Obviously, the brain is what is allowing each of us to perceive sound, thus it is here that music changes from noise to meaning. Sound, in general, is decoded in the auditory cortex of the temporal lobes (the part of the brain located by either ear—though the neural circuitry from the inner ear to the auditory cortex isn’t quite so direct). However, the emotional aspect of music activates multiple neural structures. Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures brain electrical activity, (Tsang et al. 2001) found that the left frontal region of the brain responded more to tempos and modes of the happier range (faster and in major, respectively), while “sadder” tempos and modes activated the right frontal region. Another useful way to study the emotional interpretation of music is through case studies of people suffering from damage to the brain, such as concussions and aneurysms. Evidence of a separate specialized pathway of emotion of perception and memorization of music has been investigated in patients who had suffered lesions in the temporal lobes. One such patient was presented with the familiar “Happy Birthday” without lyrics. She remarked, “I don’t know that tune but it sounds happy” (Peretz and Gagnon, 1999). Although she could not identify the song from memory, and clearly she could perceive it, she could distinguish that its emotion was joyful.

The brain not only interprets the feeling of a particular song, it distinguishes what music an individual finds pleasurable. There have been several documentations of patients with frontotemporal dementia developing drastic changes in taste of music. Some of these people find great pleasure in music (to the point of singing/whistling all day), though it wasn’t considered a significant part of their lives previous to the brain damage. These symptoms are also seen in the reverse, where a music lover/musician loses their appreciation of music after brain damage to these areas. Similarly, it is suggested that sufferers of Asperger’s syndrome are indifferent to the emotions commonly felt by music because of their poorly developed amygdala (another center of emotion in the anterior temporal lobe).

As you can see, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact location of emotional interpretation of music in the brain. The complexity of music, layering structures of tempo and repetition with melodies etc., seems to broadcast throughout much of the brain. Distinct aspects of music are being taken apart for individual study, such as chord progressions (Blood et al. 1999) and consonant and dissonant music (Peretz et al. 2001). Still, there is much investigation to be had with this topic.

Future findings will not only be helpful in satisfying basic curiosities about the human brain, but also can be put to use in music therapies, as they have become increasingly popular for people with afflictions from Alzheimer’s to autism to depression. As you well know, music can simply be an everyday therapy. Whether you’re tapping a rhythm on your knees because you’re nervous, composing a tearjerker because you’re sad, or simply blasting “Over the Hills and Far Away” because it puts a grin on your face, music has the ability to convey our feelings, lift our spirits, and get us through the times. Whatever the reason, whatever the tune, indulge in your music, for it is yet another uniquely human satisfaction thanks to your brain.

More reading about the neuroscience of music: Your Brain on Music (Daniel Levitin) and Musicophilia (Oliver Sacks).

Questions can be sent to

Kathleen Beeson

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