Whether you’re cruising down a stretch of coastal highway to Joni Mitchell, or humming an Irish lullaby to a fussy baby, or squeezing out an extra mile or two while running to Green Day, or perusing the Sunday paper over scones and Schubert, music has a unique ability to affect how we feel. It pumps us up, it calms us down. It can make our heart swell with joy or reduce us to a puddle of tears. Harmony, melody, and rhythm can even act as a time machine, bringing memories vividly back to life. So how is it exactly that music has such a potent effect on our psyches?
The brain is an active participant in shaping how we interact with music. Every time we perform, compose, or listen to music, it plays a game of high-level Tetris with a range of devices, harmonies, and patterns, creating emotional meaning out of the elements of sound. While music often falls under the classification of a “right-brained” activity—meaning that the act of processing it is centered on the right hemisphere of the brain, the side associated with creativity as opposed to the left side, which is more engaged in logic—the processing of music is actually spread throughout the brain. Regions involved in movement, attention, planning and memory consistently show activation when exposed to music, although these structures have nothing to do with auditory processing itself.
As part of the temporal lobe, the auditory cortex takes in information from the ear and assesses the pitch and volume of the sound. Other parts of the brain deal with different aspects of music. Rhythm, for instance, is only connected in a relatively minor way to the auditory cortex. A lot goes into keeping even relatively simple, regular beats. Tapping along to basic rhythm brings in the left frontal cortex, left parietal cortex, and right cerebellum, and more unusual rhythms bring in still more areas of the cerebral cortex and cerebellum.
Tonality, the building of musical structure around a central chord, is another crucial part of musical understanding, and it reels in still more parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex, cerebellum, and many parts of the temporal lobe all go into our ability to recognize the tone of a given piece of music. Taken all together, this means that music already brings in three out of four of the lobes of the human brain—frontal, parietal, and temporal, with only the visual processing occipital lobe unaffected. But wait. Another intriguing side effect of listening to music is the activation of the visual cortex. Research indicates that some music can provoke a response in this part of the brain as the listener tries to conjure up appropriate imagery to match the changes and progression in the music.
These are just the basic mechanical aspects of listening to music. A good song can trigger a cascade of secondary responses too, often involuntarily. An obvious example of this is the impulse to move in time with music—not so much dancing, which is an active, independent process, but simple motions like tapping one’s toe along with the song. This is caused by stimulation of neurons in the motor cortex. Mind effectively blown yet?
Okay. Let’s dispense with the neuroscience and take a far less dry look at how music messes with our minds, shall we?