How Music Affects The Brain

Music is an extremely broad term that explains numerous things for any and every person. For some, it can mean happiness. For others, it can mean sadness. The varying musical interpretations are drawn back to one especially integral and often overlooked element – the brain. It’s no secret our brains are amazing machines and that’s characterised by its reaction to music. You don’t feel it; but, your brain is undergoing a plethora of reactions while listening to music.

When music is heard, the auditory cortex is the first to respond, processing the perception of sound and tones. The sounds are delivered to the hippocampus, where memories of the song are evoked. Emotional responses are due to the activity in the cerebellum, amygdala and nucleus accumbens. The prefrontal cortex is activated with anticipation when our favourite part of a song approaches. As you can see, a large portion of the brain is triggered, just as a result from a bunch of sounds mixed together.

Ever wondered how a song gets stuck in your head? A major factor of pop songs, or ‘earworms’, burrowing through every crevice of your head is the amount of times you’ve heard the song. The more we hear a song, the more the hippocampus is able to draw memories of the song. Researches have also identified a bunch of similarities in the fabric of common earworms. These popular songs generally feature a faster pace, unexpected leaps in the song’s timing or more repeated notes than expected. Also, the first phrase of the rises and the second phrase consequently falls. A song that exemplifies these qualities is Lady Gaga’s huge 2009 hit single ‘Bad Romance’. I bet it’s still stuck in your head after all these years.

Of course, frequently being exposed to earworms such as ‘Bad Romance’ has had an impact on the type of music most popular in Western culture. Outlined in an MIT News article, professors Josh McDermott and Ricardo Godoy conducted two sets of studies in 2011 and 2015 on an Amazonian tribe, who live in the small town of Tsimane and have extremely limited exposure to Western music. The team performed the same tests on a group of Spanish-speaking Bolivians and also American musician and non-musicians. In each study, researches asked participants to rate how much they liked dissonant and consonant chords. The notion of the study was to determine if the music that certain people are drawn to is hardwired in the brain or if it is a result of cultural factors.

“What we found is the preference for consonance over dissonance varies dramatically across those five groups,” McDermott says. “In the Tsimane it’s undetectable, and in the two groups in Bolivia, there’s a statistically significant but small preference. In the American groups it’s quite a bit larger, and it’s bigger in the musicians than in the non-musicians.”

The findings suggest that it is likely culture, and not a biological factor, that determines the common preference for consonant musical chords, says Brian Moore, a professor of psychology at Cambridge University, who was not involved in the study.

While cultural factors impact the likelihood of what music we like and dislike, the science behind musical appreciation is more scientific. Musical appreciation can be related to the feelings we experience during sex, eating chocolate and even on consumption of cocaine. In Wired’s article on The Neuroscience Of Music, it states that when listening to music, it triggers the release of dopamine into a part of the brain called the striatum; a common response to pleasurable stimuli.

Music’s affect on the brain remain largely unclear and misconstrued, represented by the supposed ‘Mozart effect’ of which it’s believed that Mozart’s music makes people smarter. It doesn’t. A lot of research has been conducted on the topic, however there is still no real concrete evidence surrounding many of the conceptions of music’s affect on the mind. But one thing is clear from reading this article – ‘Bad Romance’ will be stuck in your head for a further 10 years. Sorry about that.

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