May 14, 2021
For years, researchers have studied the effects of sound on the human brain. Specifically, people have tried to understand why certain sounds alter someone’s mood, physical sensations, and even memory.
The most common example of this phenomenon is music. It’s a form of art and tradition inherent to every known culture on Earth, and in some cases music (particularly the use of chants, horns, and drums) predates organized language.
The human brain attunes to sound in the womb somewhere between 16 and 18 weeks. And a newborn’s sense of hearing develops faster than other senses, even extending to tuning out or “unlistening” to specific sounds. This suggests that humans have a predilection for sound, with certain parts of our brain prioritizing audio-triggered responses.
All of these findings have led to a heightened focus on understanding our obsession with sound, both as a component of modern cultures and also as a key piece of brain development. And this particular field of neuroscience — often grouped with psychoacoustics — has led to changes in both administered therapy and everyday self-care.
To fully appreciate the psychology of music, you can break the topic down into three key categories: how our brains process sound, how music affects the brain, and how music therapy can be used to improve anyone’s life.
Music is a powerful and often emotional experience for many people, yet so few of us fully appreciate how specific sounds affect our mood. But before we explore the physiology of music’s effect on the brain, it’s important to understand how our bodies interact with sound as a whole.
Put simply, our body perceives sound as vibrations and translates those signals to electric pulses. While that might not seem particularly “simple” — in fact it is one of the more complex things our bodies do each day — scientists have unraveled the principle stages of how sound moves from the source to the brain.
Everyone is familiar with the concept of sound waves, but sound can also travel as a set of pulses; these are the two primary patterns that sounds take as they travel. When these pressure variations travel through a specific material (usually air), they push and compress the molecules in their path and take a very specific shape.
Those pulses spread as they travel, growing wider and taller with time. As this cone expands, the pressure weakens and the sound becomes diluted or less powerful, which affects how clearly we are able to hear them. But that original “shape” remains.
With this mental image, it’s easy to see how “sound” quickly becomes “noise.” Crowded streets are full of competing pulses, while a single sound travels differently through air as compared to another medium like water or rock.
Music is an even more complicated set of audio signals because it can consist of sounds from multiple sources, at multiple frequencies, and sometimes even from multiple directions. And the way sound travels becomes even more complex when we think about hearing range, sound diffusion, and how different sources create different sound wave shapes.
“Hearing” truly begins when sound waves pass through the ear canal and reach the eardrum. Our bodies receive and process sound in three different stages: the signal of a specific sound travels into the outer ear (eardrum), is transcribed by the middle ear (ossicles), and is broadcast to the inner ear (cochlea) where it passes on to the brain.
Once sound waves reach the eardrum, a delicate set of organs and bones get to work. These pieces function similarly to a stopwatch or even a computer hard drive, with a dozen different minuscule components working in tandem over the course of a microsecond.
As each sound wave reaches the outer ear, it causes the eardrum to vibrate like a strummed rubber band. This movement shifts then three tiny bones — the smallest in the human body, in fact — which amplifies those vibrations as they pass on to the cochlea.
The cochlea, which has a shape similar to a nautilus shell, is lined with tiny hairs. And as the sound vibrations reach different sections of the cochlea, these hairs — called stereocilia — move up and town. That, in turn, opens up pores that release neurotransmitters into a nerve connecting the cochlea to the brain.
Finally, those chemicals travel along the auditory nerve and are received, processed, and recognized by the brain as specific sounds. All of that happens at near-instantaneous speeds every millisecond of every day, regardless of whether we are awake or asleep.
This video from the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communications Disorders animates the entire process from start to finish:
Sound signals affect many sections of the brain, but each area reacts differently based on how the brain categorizes the auditory signal. Music in particular takes full advantage of that process by generating a wide variety of mental, emotional, and physical reactions. And it is that variety that makes the psychology of music a focal point for many scientific studies.
Multiple sound sources often create “noise” that muddy our brain’s ability to single out and process specific sounds. That is especially true with sounds at varying decibels and wavelengths, similar to the illustration of a busy city street.
Music, however, is both a simple sound and a complex amalgamation of different sounds. Yet — when properly arranged — the human brain is able to receive that signal and then separate the individual instruments and vocals. It can also recognize specific music chords or notes, understand multiple sets of lyrics, and physically react to the beat, all at the same time.
Those levels of complexity add to the artfulness of music and how songs are composed and arranged to generate emotions and pleasure. But before we can explore the art of music and the different ways it can be used to improve our lives, we need to understand the many ways that music interacts with our brains.
Scientists have singled out a dozen different areas of the brain that respond to music, but five regions have the most significant impact on the listener. They are the:
We’ll look at each of these separately to see how sound (and specifically music) can affect the brain’s natural physiological purpose.
The temporal lobe serves a variety of roles, and one of them is language comprehension. This plays an important part in how we hear and react to the world around us, particularly in regards to conversation.
As our brain’s language center, the temporal lobe allows us to understand song lyrics. The temporal lobe is constantly engaged when we listen to music — even songs without lyrics.
The temporal lobe functions as the processing center for music, but two of its subregions allow us to further enjoy what we hear. Wernicke’s area is the part of the brain that analyzes and comprehends what we hear, turning the words of a song into specific phrases and stories.
Meanwhile, Broca’s area gives us the ability to form our words ourselves so we can sing along with the music or discuss what we are hearing.
While the amygdala is tucked within the temporal lobe, it serves a purpose that makes it stand apart. The amygdala is the emotional switchboard of the brain, managing both negative emotions (fear or displeasure) as well as positive emotions (enthusiasm or tranquility).
The amygdala ties into the “fight or flight” instinct of the brain; it is the part of the brain that processes sounds and determines our emotional reactions to them. So while the amygdala can alert someone to an approaching ambulance or an angry dog, it is also the part that makes us smile when we hear a familiar voice or the calming songs of rainfall.
The amygdala’s connection to music is an obvious one, and studies show that responses to certain music genres are almost universal. Music can trigger those same emotional cues as the sounds mentioned above: a horror film soundtrack elicits an almost primal fear, while a soaring battle march can create a surge of excitement.
Similarly, meditation music can soothe the mind and body to produce a calming effect. And a plucky pop song can force an easy smile, regardless of the listener’s previous mood. All of these physiological responses to music stem from the amygdala.
The frontal lobe, on the other hand, is where we do our thinking, planning, and reasoning. While neurologists have yet to fully understand how music affects the frontal lobe, we do know that our interests and opinions about music — and specifically our tastes in genres and songs — stem from frontal lobe activity.
Research shows that the frontal lobe functions as a hub for how we respond to certain music. Those specifics continue to be the focus of much study, but this area of the brain is a frequent focus for music therapists.
A normal byproduct to music is movement, and that is tied directly to the cerebellum. Whether that means tapping a foot, dancing a jig, or strumming an air guitar, the cerebellum is the part of the brain that triggers and coordinates movement in response to (or in time with) music.
Playing instruments also relies entirely on this part of the brain. Studies have shown that even a few weeks of piano lessons can alter the cerebellum. In fact, those functional changes aren’t restricted to playing music — listening to music or even imagining playing the piano can have the same effect.
The cerebellum also manages muscle memory. While a person’s cognitive abilities and long-term memory can fade over time, the cerebellum — as a separate part of the brain — ages differently. This has led to stories of coma victims reacting to music, Alzheimer’s patients playing instruments, and stroke victims finding their voice through song. As a result, the cerebellum is particularly valuable for many forms of music therapy.
Listening to music does not only have a transient effect on the brain; research shows that hearing or playing music alters both brain structure and brain function, particularly in situations where the same music is played frequently. This is because the hippocampus serves as a total contrast to the cerebellum.
As the brain’s memory center, the hippocampus is in charge of storing information. It also regulates emotional responses to certain things, which can be tied to memories associated with similar triggers.
Multiple scientific studies on the hippocampus have shown a strong tie between music listening, long-term memory, and short-term memory. The repetitive nature of music, with its motifs and phrases, activates short-term memory while simultaneously building long-term memories. That’s why people can remember a song they heard on the radio the previous day, but then 30 years later they also remember the outfit they wore and who else was in the car when they heard that song.
This effect can vary based upon the type of music being played. And that gives further credit to the idea that music can be a powerfully influential force on brain function. Music can be written to target different brain regions, which in turn elicit different reactions from the listener. While that allows musicians and composers to create truly moving pieces of music, it is proof that music can be a valuable tool for healthcare providers.
New studies continue to showcase music’s effects on the brain. As a result, music therapy has become an increasingly valuable tool for helping patients with all sorts of injuries and negative life experiences. While trauma of any sort can lead to different types of brain atrophy, we now know that music can have the opposite effect; it may not fully repair damaged brain tissue, but music therapy can help create new pathways to compensate for that loss.
A 2018 study proved that changes in brain function (caused by listening to music) activates specific areas of the brain, which can promote healing. And that healing can take a variety of forms, such as reduced depression, improved abstract thinking, heightened motivation, etc.
That study went on to suggest that music therapy could be used to deal with anything from “subjective distress experience in chronic pain syndromes, to the reward circuitry involved in addictive disorders, to the psychomotor pathways involved in Parkinson’s disease, and even to the functional connectivity changes that occur in autism spectrum disorders.”
That is not to say that music is some sort of mystical cure-all for every ailment. But there is evidence that implementation of music therapy can succeed as a means of giving people strength as they undergo surgery, chemotherapy, and other complicated treatment regimens.
These outcomes can provide encouraging results for many people, but future studies will be required to show the lasting effects of music therapy. Creating new pathways through the brain could circumvent damaged tissue, thereby restoring previously lost functions. So while music therapy may never provide a path to reverting neurological disorders, there are still obvious benefits from incorporating music into a patient’s therapeutic habits.
Music therapy dates back all the way to Ancient Greece — specifically the writings of Plato and Aristotle — and there are earlier records of music being used in ritualistic healings around the world. However, the first scientific papers on the topic began to appear in the late 1700s.
The earliest modern implementations of music therapy were immediately following World War II. Musicians would perform for hospitalized veterans as a means to raise their spirits and help them deal with psychological trauma that they carried home from those battlefields. But the benefits of these performances were so significant that doctors began to study the impact of music on mental health.
Over the next few decades, this research led many therapists to dedicate their whole careers to studying the psychology of music. Some of the music therapy pioneers were Isa Maud Ilsen (founder of the National Association of Music in Hospitals), Harriet Ayer Seymour (founder of the National Foundation of Music Therapy), E. Thayer Gaston (considered the “father of music therapy”), and Ira Altshuler, whose efforts led to the first collegiate music therapy training program.
All of those individual efforts culminated in the founding of the American Music Therapy Association in 1998. This association is an advocate for promoting music therapy across the government and academia, and it eventually grew to become the main hub for music therapy research, education, and resources throughout the United States and more than 30 other countries.
Music therapy can deliver a wide range of positive results, including but not limited to self-discovery, self-expression, and self-healing. But music can also bring a sense of community through performances both in-person and remote. Patients are able to practice this form of therapy long after they’ve completed their prescribed care regimen.
While music therapy is most effective when paired with other practices — like exercise, counseling, and social support — it can be used independently without sacrificing results. Popular implementations of music therapy include:
At the core of these practices is a singular fact: Music’s ability to alter brain function provides therapists with a valuable and repeatable tool. The ability to improve a patient’s mood and create a calm environment — regardless of the patient’s health — has helped integrate music therapy into most mental health providers. It also solidifies the importance of music in our culture.
Music can be used as a form of natural therapy for many different diseases, even showing benefits for those with severe physical or cognitive impairments regardless of age or mental health status. Recently, the University of Miami Health System implemented a music therapy program as part of their cancer treatment practice.
The goal of this is to use all sides of music — writing, listening, playing, and singing — to activate different parts of the brain in whatever way each patient prefers.
Because of that flexibility, patients have been able to find comfort and strength through music therapy even during COVID-induced quarantine. And as further study is done on the topic of the psychology of music, it is safe to assume that we will see new ways to implement music into therapy regimens. As a result, music therapy will only grow in importance.
The psychology of music really comes down to how the brain processes sound, how music affects different parts of the brain, and how music therapy can be implemented. But perhaps the most significant and universal outcome of music therapy is that, at its core, music brings joy.
Listening to music triggers the same pleasure centers as eating a favorite food, exercising, or even having sex. This is a core reason behind why music therapy has become such a widespread inclusion from many mental health practices. And that remains true even in spite of a global pandemic; in fact, mandated quarantine made music even more important.
For many people, listening to music provided a way to manage global increases in anxiety, loneliness, and depression. So whether it is a means of reducing the effects of epilepsy, relieving the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, or even learning a new language, music has the power to improve a person’s life. And understanding how that can be implemented into mental health routines makes it a topic worth studying, understanding, and practicing.