Music and your Brain

13 Mar

Why does your mood change when you listen to music? It can make us feel happy, calm, or irritated. Sometimes we are barely aware that it’s going on in the background say, in a restaurant, or when in deep meditation. Music can also help us relax or study. How does this happen? We don’t have all the answers but scientific interest in neurology and music is revealing surprising information.

Music is known to affect almost all functional areas of the brain such as emotion, memory, seeing, hearing, learning and attention. Musicians have distinctly different brains when subjected to fMRI examination compared to non-musicians.

Functionally, trained musicians respond to music differently to music. For example, the auditory cortex of musicians responds twice as strongly than non-musicians. When a musician hears a piece of music that they know, their auditory as well as motor cortices will light up. Only the auditory cortex will light up in a non-musician. The motor and auditory cortices are interconnected in musicians. Intriguingly, depending on the instrument you’ve learned, for example, a string instrument, the areas corresponding to the fingers (left hand fingers, and not the thumb) used will specifically light up in the motor cortex.

Structurally, the auditory cortex of a musician is much larger than that of a non-musician. The size also corresponds to the length of time the musician has been in training, so those who began learning music as a youngster will have larger auditory cortices than those who began learning when a teenager or adult. The structure that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the corpus collosum, is also bigger in musicians. The cerebellum, responsible for motor coordination, is also bigger in musicians. (

Music and emotion

You’ve probably witnessed, or personally experienced, a mother singing a lullaby to her infant. The effect of the mother’s voice, the rhythm and melody of the tune, the loving look in mother’s eyes as she focuses on her baby activates the baby’s seeing and hearing circuitry. In addition, various neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and dopamine are released signaling warmth, safety, and connection. Both mother and child feel lovingly bonded.

Pharrel Williams’ “Happy” makes me want to dance; “Benedictus” by Karl Jenkins, or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony create feelings of pure joy for me; and listening to Cecelia by Simon and Garfunkel is a great song to sing along to. Heavy metal, however, makes me rush for my noise-cancelling headphones! We are all different, of course, so one person’s happy heavy metal is another’s Strauss march.

We appear to love music, according to various studies, because of its association with emotion. “At deeper level, music stimulates activities of the amygdala, which regulates emotion, and even the brain stem, which is the center for many of the vital functions of our bodies such as breathing, heart rate, and digestion”, says

Music and Memory

In order to bring to mind a piece of music, you need memory. There are specific areas of the brain that associate a memory with a particular tune. These areas include the hippocampus and lower parts of the frontal lobe. It is fascinating to see that even those who have essentially lost much of their memory, such as Alzheimer patients, can suddenly become alive and remember substantial details of information when their neurological ‘music centre’ is activated by listening to their favourite music. Watch this marvellous clip about Henry:

Music and Healing

My dentist plays relaxing music for me. He knows it reduces anxiety, and he knows I love music and dislike dental procedures! More and more surgeons and medical professionals are playing their favourite music in operating theatres as it relieves stress not just for the surgical staff but also their patients, and there is evidence of music being linked to improved surgical outcomes.

There is a growing occupational field of music therapy and some of the areas they successfully work in include: pre- and post-operation; restoring speech after a stroke or traumatic brain injury; aiding pain relief, depression and side-effects of chemotherapy; improving physical therapy and rehabilitation; and improving quality of life in people with dementia (see the case of Henry above).


Music and the brain is a fascinating area of study, but if neurology is not your ‘thing’, it’s probably just good to know that music and extraordinarily powerful and positive effects on human functioning and well-being. Here are some of music’s benefits:

  • Improve memory
  • Boost your immune system
  • Reduce seizures
  • Help repair brain damage
  • Help Parkinson patients move better
  • Bring periods of lucidity to Alzheimer patients
  • Improve study and focusing ability

Have a very happy day, everyone! Enjoy Pharrell Williams’ great mood enhancer: