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How the Brain Processes Music

Science is catching up with what music therapists have been witnessing for many decades — the fact that music can change the way a person feels, thinks, and behaves. Thanks to medical technologies, the public has awakened to the power and potential of using music in almost every health and educational context — and why it’s important that we do.

For thousands of years, people have sung, performed, and enjoyed music. Researchers have consistently observed that people from all corners of the world listen to or create some type of music, and that all people recognize music when they hear it. While music from various cultures differs in flavor and has myriad different meanings and emotions associated with it, every single culture makes music.

Neurologists have long known that there were areas of the brain specifically dedicated to processing music, and with the advent of advanced brain imaging technology, they’ve discovered that music’s reach is far more extensive than previously believed. When we listen to music, sound vibrations in the ear are converted to neural messages and transmitted to the thalamus, the brain’s “sensory relay station.” After reaching the thalamus, sound information is passed to the auditory cortex and instantaneously broken down into many different elements including, but not limited to, timing, pitch, and timbre (tone). Auditory information is also sent to other parts of the brain to be compared against historical associations and emotional responses (do I like it or not?), stimulating many parts of the brain in both hemispheres.

Although neurologists are still exploring how the auditory cortex functions, they now believe that music processing is much more complex than initially imagined, and involves many more parts of the brain than previously suspected. 

Bonus – here is all the corresponding research from the book Wellness, Wellplayed (the home of this illustration)

 

Prefrontal Cortex

music influences our cognitive processes

Moreno, S., Can Music Influence Language and Cognition? Contemporary Music Review, 2009. 28(3): p. 329-345.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/07494460903404410?needAccess=true

 

Motor Cortex

involved in music-related movements including dancing and playing

Li, G., et al., Identifying enhanced cortico-basal ganglia loops associated with prolonged dance training. Scientific Reports, 2015. 5(1): p. 10271.

Herholz, Sibylle C. and Robert J. Zatorre, Musical Training as a Framework for Brain Plasticity: Behavior, Function, and Structure. Neuron, 2012. 76(3): p. 486-502.

https://www.nature.com/articles/srep10271#citeas

https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/dancing-brain

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23141061/

Corpus Callosum

connects the two hemispheres and is larger in musicians

Schlaug, G., et al., Increased corpus callosum size in musicians. Neuropsychologia, 1995. 33(8): p. 1047-1055.

Münte, T.F., E. Altenmüller, and L. Jäncke, The musician’s brain as a model of neuroplasticity. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2002. 3(6): p. 473-8.

Steele, C.J., et al., Early Musical Training and White-Matter Plasticity in the Corpus Callosum: Evidence for a Sensitive Period. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2013. 33(3): p. 1282-1290.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8524453

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12042882

https://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/3/1282

https://www.science.org/news/2008/04/music-builds-bridges-brain

Amygdala

enhances our memories of emotional experiences

Hermans, E.J., et al., How the amygdala affects emotional memory by altering brain network properties. Neurobiol Learn Mem, 2014. 112: p. 2-16.

Yang, Y. and J.-Z. Wang, From Structure to Behavior in Basolateral Amygdala-Hippocampus Circuits. Frontiers in Neural Circuits, 2017. 11(86).

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24583373

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncir.2017.00086/full

https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/music-brain

https://www.dana.org/article/beyond-emotion-understanding-the-amygdalas-role-in-memory/

Cerebellum

helps process and regulate rhythm and timing

Nozaradan, S., et al., Specific contributions of basal ganglia and cerebellum to the neural tracking of rhythm. Cortex, 2017. 95: p. 156-168.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28910668

https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/music-brain

Sensory Cortex

processes tactile feedback when dancing or playing instruments

Olszewska, A.M., et al., How Musical Training Shapes the Adult Brain: Predispositions and Neuroplasticity. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2021. 15(204).

Borich, M.R., et al., Understanding the role of the primary somatosensory cortex: Opportunities for rehabilitation. Neuropsychologia, 2015. 79(Pt B): p. 246-255

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2021.630829/full

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4904790

https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/dancing-brain

Auditory Cortex

analyzes sounds and tone

Nelken, I., Music and the Auditory Brain: Where is the Connection? Frontiers in human neuroscience, 2011. 5: p. 106-106.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3202228

https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/music-brain

Hippocampus

involved in music memories, experiences and context

Koelsch, S., Investigating the neural encoding of emotion with music. Neuron, 2018. 98(6): p. 1075-1079

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29953870

https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/music-brain

Visual Cortex

stimulated when reading music, watching others dance or music videos

Huff, T., N. Mahabadi, and P. Tadi, Neuroanatomy, Visual Cortex, in StatPearls. 2021, StatPearls Publishing. Copyright © 2021, StatPearls Publishing LLC.: Treasure Island (FL)

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29494110