Music and the Brain

Taylor Swift, I admire her. She is a talented artist and wonderful role model to our younger generation, but her song… I just can’t, "shake it off, shake it off, ah ooo hooo!!" -- But seriously, Taylor, I’m trying to write this blog.


Have you also fallen victim to an automatic, maybe even compulsive, internal repetition of a musical tune? They are called earworms [1], or "cognitively infectious musical agents” as one 1987 newsmagazine so aptly described them, and are practically universal. The acclaimed neurologist, Oliver Sacks, reflected that this universality is "the clearest sign of the overwhelming, and at times helpless, sensitivity of our brains to music [2].”

But, how exactly does music affect the brain? When you listen to music, whether it is to free your mind with Bruce Springsteen, boost your mood with Guns and Roses or be inspired by Tchaikovsky, the Reward System in your brain is activated. That name stems from the system’s release of the 'pleasure chemical' dopamine. When a song you particularly enjoy is heard, the nucleus accumbens (NA) triggers the release of dopamine from the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) [3]. The more active the nucleus accumbens, the more dopamine that is released, and in fact, the more likely a person is to dish out cash for new music [4].

It seems then, that music can have a certain power over us. My wise Uncle Ben once told me, "with great power comes great responsibility.” So, has music been used for good? Yes! Music has physical effects on the body. Have you ever experienced goose bumps or maybe a tingling sensation at the back of your neck from listening to an emotionally laden song? Music is physically affecting you. Studies have shown that soothing music can decrease blood pressure, reduce heart rate, reduce anxiety and improve mood [5]. Listening to relaxing or meditative music leads to neurochemical changes in the brain, significantly reducing the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, and at times the "fight-or-flight hormone”, norepinephrine [6]. One study reported that listening to relaxing music actually lowered cortisol and anxiety levels of patients scheduled to undergo surgery, to a greater extent than patients on anti-anxiety medication [7]. Music also plays a role in rehabilitation and its prominence is strengthening as our understanding of the mechanisms by which music is processed in the brain increases. Through the use of brain imaging and electrical recording techniques (such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, positron-emission tomography, electroencephalography and magnetoencephalography) we can observe how brain regions interact when someone is listening to, playing or imaging to play an instrument [8] -- the results are eye-opening. Brain regions that process music are similar to those that process other functions, such as the ability to speak or pay attention. But in addition, music activates extra brain regions, and as a result may enhance the way brain systems work together. Music tends to activate brain structures either bilaterally, in both hemispheres simultaneously, or more greatly in the right hemisphere than the left. For injuries to one side of the brain, music may recruit neural resources to train or relearn lost functions. Take Laurel, for example. After she suffered a massive stroke, blood could no longer reach Broca’s area, a region on the left side of the brain crucial for the production of speech. Despite being able to understand what was being communicated to her, she was left unable to vocalize a single word -- except when she sang [9]. We know that music activates temporal and frontal brain areas on both sides of the brain, while spoken-word learning only activates areas in the left hemisphere [10]. In Laurel’s case, music may be recruiting neural resources from undamaged brain regions that moderate rhythmic and tonal aspects of language, thereby bypassing the damaged Broca’s area. With the knowledge that brain systems underlying music are shared by other functions, such as auditory perception, attention, memory, motor ability and executive control [11], research is increasing its focus on what can be done to rehabilitate the brain with Neurologic Music Therapy [12]. Scientists have identified specific areas in which music is an effective therapeutic approach: Currently, music has been used in neurological rehabilitation therapy to, for example, improve verbal output for people with aphasia and rehabilitate motor skills for those who have suffered stroke [13,14].

So while there are those times that I just can’t get that incessant tune out of my head, I’m going to have to give music a break. It has been quite the hero to many and has just saved me from reaching for that Kit Kat Bar in the midst of trying to reach my deadline. Now, time for a much deserved break… "give me a break, give me a break, break me off a piece of that…" Oh no.


1. Williams, T. I. (2015). The classification of involuntary musical imagery: The case for earworms. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 25(1), 5.
2. Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.
3. Menon V., Levitin D.J. (2005). The rewards of music listening: response and physiological connectivity of the mesolimbic system. Neuroimage, 28(1): 175-84.
4. Salimpoor, V. N., van den Bosch, I., Kovacevic, N., McIntosh, A. R., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. J. (2013). Interactions between the nucleus accumbens and auditory cortices predict music reward value. Science, 340(6129), 216-219.
5. Knight, W. E., & Rickard, N. S. (2001). Relaxing music prevents stress-induced increases in subjective anxiety, systolic blood pressure, and heart rate in healthy males and females. Journal of music therapy, 38(4), 254-272.
6. Chanda, M. L. & Levitin, D. J. (2013). The neurochemistry of music. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(4), 179-194.
7. Bringman, H. et al. (2009) Relaxing music as pre-medication before surgery; a randomised controlled trial. Acta Anaesthesiol. Scand. 53, 759–764
8. Meister, I. G., Krings, T., Foltys, H., Boroojerdi, B., Müller, M., Töpper, R., & Thron, A. (2004). Playing piano in the mind—an fMRI study on music imagery and performance in pianists. Cognitive Brain Research, 19(3), 219-228.
9. Thompson, W.F & Schlaug G (2015, March). Music Can Heal the Brain. Scientific American Mind, 26(2). Print.
10. M. H. Thaut, D. A. Peterson, and G. C. McIntosh, "Temporal entrainment of cognitive functions: Musical mnemonics induce brain plasticity and oscillatory synchrony in neural networks underlying memory,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1060 (2005): 243–254. - See more at:
11. C. Haslam and M. Cook, "Striking a chord with amnesic patients: Evidence that song facilitates memory,” Neurocase 8 (2002): 453–465; Y. Ma, J. Nagler, M. Lee, et al., "Impact of music therapy on the communication skills of toddlers with pervasive developmental disorder,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 930 (2001): 445–447; M. H. Thaut, J. C. Gardiner, D. Holmberg, et al., "Neurologic music therapy improves executive function and emotional adjustment in traumatic brain injury rehabilitation,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1169 (2009): 406–416. - See more at:
12. V. Hoemberg, "Evidence-based medicine in neurologic rehabilitation: A critical review,” Acta Neurochirurgica 93 (2005): 3–14. - See more at:
13. Cofrancesco, E. M. (1985). The effect of music therapy on hand grasp strength and functional task performance in stroke patients. Journal of Music Therapy, 22(3), 129-145.
14. Altenmüller, E., Marco‐Pallares, J., Münte, T. F., & Schneider, S. (2009). Neural Reorganization Underlies Improvement in Stroke‐induced Motor Dysfunction by Music‐supported Therapy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1169(1), 395-405.