How music affects the brain

Alexander Pearson
How music affects the brain

Sit down to listen to songs that remind us of unforgettable moments, feel the euphoria radiated by groups of people chanting a chorus when listening to their favorite musicians at a concert or see the emotion of parents when they observe their baby's response when they sing a lullaby. Music has unparalleled emotional and cognitive effects and this has a brain base that interests researchers from disciplines such as neuroscience and psychology around the world. Today we explain the main conclusions that research has managed to contribute on how music affects the brain.


  • Music and emotions
  • Music and memory
  • Music and neuroplasticity
  • Do you get chills when you listen to music?
    • Links of interest

Music and emotions

Music moves many emotions and is involved in cognitive processes that make it a tool with even therapeutic effect. Musical stimuli manage to increase the volume of certain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is released producing brain rewards for stimuli that cause pleasure. It also regulates the levels of serotonin, oxytocin or epinephrine, achieving states of pleasure in a very similar way to those achieved by certain drugs.

Thus, music stimulates emotions through specific brain circuits that manage to make this a unique experience.

Stefan Koelsch is a research psychologist and musician who studies the neural mechanisms involved in music. According to Koelsch, there are three structures most involved in the processing of emotions that music provokes:

  • Amygdala: The amygdala is a structure located in the temporal lobe and is part of the limbic system. This set of nuclei has a primary function in the processing and storage of emotional reactions. According to research, music manages to activate the amygdala in the same way that visualizing faces, smelling or hearing other sounds does, stimuli that are perceived by a social meaning. According to Koelsch, the amygdala is part of a large network that regulates behaviors that respond to socio-affective stimuli such as music, in addition to evaluating positive and negative stimuli that will or will not be reinforced.
  • Nucleus accumbens: This set of neurons that is part of the mesolimbic pathway, is associated with the responses we generate when a stimulus gives us pleasure and motivation. Musical stimuli manage to activate this structure just as other primary stimuli such as food or sex do, or other secondary stimuli such as money or power. That is, it is a structure that has a lot to do with hedonistic behavior that pushes us to seek those stimuli again due to the brain reward obtained. A great activation of this nucleus when listening to music can predict if we will listen to a song again and even buy the track.
  • The hippocampus: This important structure located in the temporal lobe, has a main function when it comes to processing and storing memories. It seems that the hippocampus is activated when we hear recurring musical phrases. Taking into account that emotions are very important for the better storage of memory and learning, it is not surprising that emotional music triggers the reaction of this structure by virtue of the emotional associations and the meaning that it will generate..

Music and memory

Many are the studies that support the connection between music and memory. It is surprising to see how patients affected by memory loss due to Alzheimer's disease retain their musical memories even in the most advanced stages of the disease.

Many are the studies that have been carried out to investigate the relationship between music and memory activation. One of these is carried out by Petr Janata, a professor at the University of California at Davis. This proved how the musical memories that provoke the greatest emotion largely activate the dorsal area of ​​the medial prefrontal cortex, an area related to memory retrieval. It seems that this area of ​​the brain is one of the last to be affected by Alzheimer's disease and this could explain why patients can continue to remember melodies that cause them emotion.

Music and neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to create new brain connections that repair certain damage or compensate for the injuries that have been suffered. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to acquire new responses to face new situations in the environment in different ways.

It seems that music is able to help the formation of new brain pathways when patients suffer from brain injuries. This is shown by a study at the University of Newcastle in Australia, in which it was studied how patients affected by brain injuries managed to reconnect memories and reorganize information through music, as if it acted as a guide in memory.

Do you get chills when you listen to music?

Except for people who suffer from specific musical anhedonia, a neurological insensitivity to music, we can all take pleasure in listening to music. However, some people go the extra mile and are prone to a kind of chill or goose bumps when they hear a song they love. It is about experiencing emotions so intensely when listening to music that people can feel sensations of extreme pleasure.

According to research such as that carried out by Harvard University researcher Dr Matthew Sachs, people who experience musical chills have neurological characteristics that are different from the rest. Specifically, it appears that the auditory cortex is more connected with emotional processing areas due to a higher density of the fiber volumes that link these areas. This greater connection causes the two regions to interact better, eliciting these highly sensitive responses..

The effects of music are not overlooked by scientists and psychologists. Its ability to provoke emotions, capture attention and access the most hidden memories are even used therapeutically. A clear example is the use of music therapy as a method to identify emotions in autistic people, to work memory with people suffering from Alzheimer's disease or to improve the mood of people suffering from depression. Music is more than a set of ordered sounds that communicate with each other. It can also help us on different levels and brain studies are increasingly showing this.

Links of interest

  • Goosebumps while listening to music linked with different brain structure. Samuel Mayer. 2019.
  • Music, emotion and the brain. 2014.
  • Music and the Brain: The Fascinating Ways That Music Affects Your Mood and Mind. Barry Goldstein.

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