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  • Carolyn Mish

The Mind on Music: Neuroscience and Art

By: Carolyn Mish, Contributing Writer

Listening to music is a relaxing activity that everyone can participate in. From epic classical pieces to the intricate rhyme schemes of hip hop and rap, there is music out there for everyone. However, despite how relaxing it can be, listening to music is a workout for almost every part of the brain, and requires a lot of work for your brain to comprehend the sound that reaches your ears.

Scientists have used magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI machines, to help visualize the areas of the brain that respond to stimuli. Using this tech, we now know that between performing and listening to music, the entire brain is stimulated. Different areas are impacted by different aspects of the experience, and they all work together to understand the complex code of sound and patterns that make up the music we listen to.

Have you ever listened to a song for the first time and felt like you know what sounds, lyrics, and patterns are to come? This sensation is called anticipation and is controlled by the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls decision making and goal setting. Your brain forms its own set of expectations through the music that you have heard throughout your life, and your brain compares new music to this set of expectations. This is essentially how music taste and preference are formed; pleasure centers light up if the musical expectations are met by the song, and they respond to the unexpected in similar ways. Songs and music that defy our expectations are at the heart of the musical experience; they keep the brain asking for more, and expand our horizons.

The prefrontal cortex isn’t the only area of the brain that helps process musical stimuli. Even the emotional reactions we have to our favorite songs are due to where in the brain we process pleasure. The amygdala releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps us feel happy and motivated, when our favorite lyrics, verses, and songs play. This manifests as shivers down the spine and emotional displays. In addition to the amygdala, the frontal lobes, which normally operate emotions and critical thinking, help us understand lyrics and decipher the emotional code in music. This isn’t limited to lyrics, either--classical composers use other aspects of music, like articulation, expression, and chord progressions to take us on emotional journeys, and our brains identify the emotional stimuli in similar ways to how they identify heart wrenching lyrics or melodies.

Once our brains understand the music we hear, we remember it. Memories of our favorite songs are stored in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls long term memory and learning. Because we store music in this part of our brain, many people can identify songs based on a small snippet of the music.

Musicians experience even more aspects of music! When performing and learning to play instruments, musicians utilize the cerebellum, a part of the brain near the brain stem related to motor function and coordination. Musicians retain muscle memory as the body remembers how to play and perform by memorizing the small movements and storing that stimuli in the cerebellum. Rhythm, or the patterns that music follows, are also processed in the cerebellum, which is why you may dance or tap along to your favorite songs!

Understanding pitch and tone are vital aspects of both listening to and performing music, and this happens in the auditory cortex, an area of the brain very close to the ears. This part of the brain works to understand notes, patterns, chord progressions, and melodies.

A lot goes on in our brains to comprehend the complex sounds of the music we hear, happening in record time. Our brains function like computers to quickly process and translate sound into what we can understand; as a result, listening to music is a workout for your whole brain! It improves mental dexterity and is enjoyable overall. Listening to new music expands your brain’s view of music, and listening to old favorites refreshes your mind. Either way, incorporating the music you love into your day is a perfect way to enhance both your mental and brain health.

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