Music In The Brain

Music has been the universal language of man throughout history. A single song is able to arouse feelings, move hearts and soothe thoughts. How does this happen in the brain?

Music has been the universal language of man throughout history. A single song is able to arouse feelings, move hearts and soothe thoughts. How does this happen in the brain?

My moods are as fickle as the Dutch weather—and for every emotion, from dizzying euphoria to gloomy sadness, I have a diverse selection of music to accompany this daily internal struggle. This universal link between music and emotion has long been widely accepted in both society and science. Much research into this focuses on what happens in the brain when you listen to music. We know that music elicits feelings and physiological responses that can be measured at the level of the molecule to the brain.

A recent study on the neurochemical underpinnings of music perception found that it involves activity in the same brain networks as food, drugs, and sexual satisfaction ( note : This does not mean that music is the same as sex and drugs). In these networks there is a lot of activity of dopamine and opiates that are produced naturally in your body. Natural opiates, produced in the brain and structurally similar to opiates like heroin, are crucial for experiencing both positive and negative emotions with music. These chemicals are also involved in the pleasure we experience when we eat sugary foods, or in activities such as sex and gambling.

But what about music triggers that emotional response? Psychologists suspect that a strong response to music can result from unexpected changes in musical aspects (eg, intensity and tempo) that increase tension and anticipation. A study of those musical aspects and emotional responses used electroencephalography (EEG) to record patterns in brain waves as subjects listened to different types of music. The researchers collected both subjective and physiological measures of the emotions experienced and found that a change in music was followed by a shift in asymmetric brain activity. In other words, brain activity in differentfrontal brain areas either increased or decreased to varying degrees during certain periods in the music (eg, start of a new motif, a change of instrument, changes in basic aspects such as pitch, dynamics or ‘texture’). This suggests that a change in music is a fundamental trigger of emotional responses while listening.

Other brain studies show that the right (non-dominant) hemisphere is important for appreciating various aspects of music. Brain damage leads to a reduction in the appreciation of pitch, timbre and rhythm. Another study demonstrated with positron emission tomography (PET) that especially the right hemisphere becomes active while listening to music; even if you imagine music instead of actually listening there is (partial) activation of those same brain areas. However, this should not be interpreted as evidence for simple left-right brain functionality (which is absolutely not the case)!

There is still much to discover about how a cleverly strung chain of nuts affects the brain. This complex and obscure link between ‘music & mind’ is currently used in various intervention therapies, from autism to depression, ADHD, and so on. The future of music in neuroscience is promising—imagine how we could use it even more if we knew just a little more.