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How Music Lights Up Our Lives and Our Brains

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Without even having read about it, you can probably already deduce that something magical happens to the mind when we listen to music. This collection of notes and vibrations that makes its way in through our ears has the power to make us dance, relax, cry, vibe – you name almost any mood and music can surely make it happen. If you don’t believe me, just head to the Browse page on Spotify.

But what does science have to say about what happens to our brains when we listen to music? What about when we play music? Let’s find out.

What effect does music have on the brain?

It has been known for quite some time that music affects the brain, but recent research shows that when we listen to music, multiple specialized areas of our brain are activated, but we didn’t always know what we know today. In fact, as little as 30 years ago it was assumed that language processing was carried out in the left hemisphere of the brain (the academic/logical side) and processing involving creativity, like listening to music, occurred in the right hemisphere (the creative/imaginative side). Looking at brain scans today, we now know that multiple areas of the brain are involved when we hear music.

For example, the following areas of our brain are activated when we listen to music:

  • Auditory cortex – This one is a given, since the auditory cortex, which is located in the temporal lobe, is responsible for processing auditory information.

  • Motor cortex – The motor cortex is the region of the cerebral cortex involved in the planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements, and is located in the rear portion of the frontal lobe. When you hear music and begin to move (even a simple movement like snapping your fingers) or dance to the music you’re listening to, that’s your motor cortex talking.

  • Cerebellum – The cerebellum is located behind the upper brain stem (where the spinal cord meets the brain) and comprises two hemispheres. Since the 1970s, the idea that the cerebellum contributes to cognitive processing and emotional control has gained popularity. When listening to music, the cerebellum mediates our emotional responses to what we’re hearing.

  • Hippocampus – This is a brain structure embedded deep in the temporal lobe of each hemisphere. It regulates motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. When we remember certain lyrics or recall a memory triggered by listening to a song, the hippocampus is involved.

In short, the act of listening to music is far from being a passive activity, it’s one that works various areas of the brain; the left, the right, the front, and the back!

Johns Hopkins Jazz Study

In 2014, Johns Hopkins published a study in which they had jazz performers improvise music while lying down inside an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine to see which areas of their brains light up when they create music. With this study, researchers were hoping to get a better understanding of the relationship between language and music processing in the brain (remember how we said it was believed that each one existed in a different hemisphere of the brain?).

The musicians were given a special (non-magnetic) keyboard while in the fMRI and asked to participate in the act of “trading fours”, a process in which musicians participate in spontaneous back and forth instrumental exchanges that are usually four bars in duration. What happened to the brain during this spontaneous creation of music is what researchers wanted to get a look at.

According to Charles Limb, M.D., an associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and who also happens to be a musician, the study results suggested that the brain regions involved in syntactic processing aren't limited to spoken language, but rather process communication in general. It turns out that while the musicians were participating in the activity of trading fours, the regions of the brain associated with spoken language and syntax were activated.

"Until now, studies of how the brain processes auditory communication between two individuals have been done only in the context of spoken language," says Limb, "But looking at jazz lets us investigate the neurological basis of interactive, musical communication as it occurs outside of spoken language.”

According to Limb, although jazz musicians may appear to be lost in thought while trading fours, they’re not merely waiting for their turn to play; in actuality, they are using the syntactic areas of their brain to process what they’re hearing and responding to the other musician with an entire original series of notes that has never been played before!

So, there you have it. Music is not only like a workout for your brain, it’s also like a language that musicians use to communicate. Now turn up the volume on that song you’re listening to and think about all of the areas lighting up in your brain when you do!


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