The effects of music on your brain

Human beings live with music at all times. It is an art that makes us enjoy pleasant times, stimulates us to remember events from the past, makes us share emotions in group songs, concerts or sports tribunes. 

But that which is extremely natural, is produced through complex and surprising neural mechanisms. That is why in neuroscience we often ask ourselves this question: what does music do to our brain? 

That is exactly what we are going to talk in this article, We will analyze the effects that music has on the brain, what happens when we listen to our favorite songs and why it encourages us so much.

Brain listening to music

Music seems to have an extensive past, as much or more than verbal language. Proof of this are the archaeological finds of flutes built with bird bone, which are estimated to be 6,000 to 8,000 years old, or even more than other instruments that could precede homo sapiens. There are various theories about this intimate coexistence with music in evolution.

Some of these occurred because when studying the response of the brain to music, the key areas that are involved are those of control and execution of movements. One of the hypotheses posits that this is the reason the music was developed: to help us all move together.

And the reason this would have an evolutionary benefit is that when people move in unison they tend to act more altruistically and be more united.

Some scientists, in turn, suggest that the influence of music on us may have arisen from a fortuitous event, due to its ability to hijack brain systems built for other purposes, such as language, emotion and movement.

We listen to music from the cradle or even in the gestation period. Babies, in the first months of life, have the ability to respond to melodies rather than to verbal communication from their parents.

Soft musical sounds relax them. It is known, for example, that premature infants who cannot sleep are benefited by the mother’s heartbeat or sounds that mimic them.

Music is considered among the elements that cause the most pleasure in life. It releases dopamine in the brain as do food, sex, and drugs.

All of them are stimuli that depend on a subcortical brain circuit in the limbic system, that is, that system formed by brain structures that manage physiological responses to emotional stimuli; particularly, the caudate nucleus and the nucleus accumbens and their connections with the prefrontal area.

The studies that show activation before the mentioned stimuli reveal significant overlap between the areas, suggesting that they all activate a common system.

Brain areas involved

Although we may think that the journey of music through our brain is simple, it goes a long way in several areas. From the eardrum, it goes to the brain stem, from there to the midbrain and continues its journey to the medial geniculate body or auditory thalamus, which connects this information with the auditory cortex of the temporal lobe.

This zone is responsible for reducing background noises from what we hear and modulating the sound, focusing on the characteristics of isolated tones. As if that were not enough, this area is surrounded by the secondary auditory cortex, which relates the tones, and the tertiary auditory cortex.

In this way, he carries out a perceptual analysis of the music and characteristics such as tone, timbre or intensity, among others, and also participates in the imagery.

Key structures

Although the involvement of music in our brain encompasses many areas, by way of synthesis, those structures most involved are:

  • Rostromedial Prefrontal Cortex: This area shows different levels of activation depending on the pitch and rhythm. In such a way that, when we listen to a melody, the prefrontal cortex is activated, also processing the emotional part. 

In addition, this area (connected to the temporal lobe) is activated in reasoning and in the process of retrieving memories.

  • Right Temporal Lobe: Related to basic sound processing, the right hemisphere records rhythm and emotional tone when we communicate. 

In patients with epileptic seizures who had to undergo a surgical operation, where part of this lobe had to be removed, it was observed that they began to have serious problems to perceive the melodies. This same operation on the left lobe had no such consequences.

  • Limbic System: those brain areas that are related to the recognition of rhythm or melody are linked to the emotional part that governs this system. Likewise, this emotional part involves the striated dopaminergic system. 

This limbic system is connected with areas related to memory, such as the precuneus, the sensory cortex or the supramarginal gyrus.

Why does music move us?

Once in the auditory cortex, the music advances towards the limbic system and from the thalamus there are some projections directed to the medial orbito-frontal cortex and the amygdala.

This area is par excellence the control structure of emotions, regulating the response of pleasure or displeasure to certain stimuli. Therefore, depending on the type of music we listen to, we experience a series of emotions or others.

For example, in a suspense or horror movie the music usually causes us anguish or, on the contrary, when faced with a great soundtrack we can get emotional.

What does us listen to our favorite song produce?

Wilkins, Hodges, Laurienti, Steen, and Burdette conducted an experiment where they measured brain activity in a group of people while listening to three different songs: their favorite song, a song they liked, and one they didn’t.

What they obtained in the results was the activation of the known default functional network (DFN), a set of brain areas that are connected to each other when the brain is in a state of rest. Or in other words, when we are distracted or immersed in something, the opposite of when we are very concentrated or with full attention.

The favorite song of the participants generated this pattern reflecting how our mind wanders or we can remember things when we hear our favorite song. Likewise, it was found that the hippocampus, the area responsible for memory, was also activated.

When a song is presented that the person does not like, it appears disconnected from this functional network by default. However, in the favorite song there is a strong relationship with the lateral parietal cortex and the middle prefrontal cortex.

This has a lot to do with the activation of reward systems, where the dopaminergic system and the nucleus accumbens are particularly relevant.

And, when we like a song, systems are activated that generate dopamine, a well-known neurotransmitter for the sensation of pleasure, which can also produce other factors such as food or drugs.

What does music do to our brains?

According to Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute, musical activities such as listening, playing, composing, put almost all of our cognitive abilities to work.

As we discussed at the beginning, many neuroscientists are interested in the neurophysiology of music in the brain because it can reveal many things about its general functioning.

Music can provoke such contradictory sensations, such as joy or sadness. Krumhansl, showed that music with fast time and in a major key created happy reactions and that, on the contrary, music with slow time and in a minor key generated sadness.

It is related to memory, emotions, moods and our creative capacity and is closely related to language. There are studies in which it is observed that people with autism or cerebral palsy who have language difficulties have a great ability to express themselves through musical instruments. Therefore it can serve as communication.

Music in the brain activates physiological and chemical processes involved in reward systems that we are not aware of. This indicates innate neural networks responsible for the musical reaction.

Like food, additive drugs or sex, music activates the dopaminergic system that is involved in the pleasure of listening to music, increasing cerebral blood flow in regions of the ventral striatum, especially in the nucleus accumbens.

Blood proposes that it is an emergent property in complex human cognition, since music is not necessary to survive or reproduce, but it can be significant for us to maintain good health.

Classical Music – the Mozart Effect

We’ve found that music helps you stay focused, but some genres of music may be more effective than others. Research from the University of Helsinki showed that classical music is more effective in stimulating brain function.

More precisely, listening to classical music stimulates the neurons responsible for producing dopamine and also the neurons responsible for regulating neurodegeneration.

So, if we like to listen to composers like Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, among others, we will have the maximum effect that music can provide if we want to concentrate on studying or working, regardless of age.

Another study between the Universities of Kyoto and Harvard analyzed the Mozart Effect. They concluded that among children 8-9 years old and people older than 65-75 years, both age ranges performed better when listening to Mozart than when listening to dissonant or chaotic music, or when not listening to music.

Again, it was found that the brain function of an elderly person continues to show the same capacity for regeneration as in young people – especially when listening to classical music!

Conclusion

Music is a tool that allows us to communicate from the first days of life. Thanks to technological advances, it has been discovered that when we listen to music, the functional connectivity in different brain areas changes continuously.

Just like the brain of a musician or a person with musical training, it can also develop other cognitive functions. This type of language, which combines sounds and silences, generates various neurochemical states that hide a greater complexity than what the naked eye might seem.

Now that you know about the effects of music on the brain and how it influences your mood, it is time to choose the right type of music for each moment of your day. Whether you want to focus or be full of energy!

FAQS: Brain listening to music

What part of the brain controls listening to music?

With music we manage to activate the two hemispheres of the brain and create more connections between them. The left hemisphere is in charge of the most logical part, reasoning, numbers, language, etc. 

On the other hand, the right hemisphere manages the most intuitive, imaginative and creative functions.

What happens to your brain when listening to music?

When the sound of music reaches the brain, and whenever the music is to our liking, it secretes dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is also released in the face of more specific pleasures associated with food, sex, drug use or money.

Does music affect your brain?

Listening to music creates spikes of emotions that increase the amount of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. They also help process other emotions such as fear, sadness, resentment and pain, even when they are present at the subconscious level.

Which music increases brain power?

Classical Music: Classical music is always recommended for study. In fact, some Mozart compositions are said to stimulate the brain and relax tremendously to improve memorization and knowledge acquisition.

Why is music bad?

Research shows music may have a lot of influence on us. It can influence disease, stress, investment, competitiveness and the world’s view of us. It may raise violent thoughts or facilitate violence, some study has indicated.

In this article, We analyzed the effects that music has on the brain, what happens when we listen to our favorite songs and why it encourages us so much.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!

References

Perani, D., Saccuman, M. C., Scifo, P., Spada, D., Andreolli, G., Rovelli, R., y Koelsch, S. (2010). Functional specializations for music processing in the human newborn brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(10), 4758-4763. http://sci-hub.tw/10.1073/pnas.0909074107

Wilkins, R. W., Hodges, D. A., Laurienti, P. J., Steen, M., y Burdette, J. H. (2015). Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: From Beethoven to Eminem. Scientific Reports, 4(1). http://sci-hub.tw/10.1038/srep06130

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