Music on the Brain


March 24, 2015

These days it seems that music permeates our lives. Whether walking, or exercising at the gym, or driving a car, or relaxing at a dinner party, most of the time these activities are accompanied by music. Start reading a book and after a while music is added to the experience one way or another. It would seem that our lives have a soundtrack and these soundtracks are different for each one of us. One might believe that modern technology and our culture have created this symbiosis. But seeing or living our lives, in musical terms is nothing new.

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”  Albert Einstein

Read what science has determined about the way our brain develops and processes music, and you will soon appreciate that the evolution and development of the human brain itself has given us our unique love and appreciation of music – it has nothing to do with technology or culture – it is something, uniquely and innately human.

Music, memory, and emotions

Naturally the explanation of the interactions in our brains while music is playing is in itself quite complex. Writer and professor Daniel J Levitin’s book “This is Your Brain on Music, The Science of a Human Obsession” has provided the best insight to what exactly is going on in our head when we listen to music:

 “ The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical predictive systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives.”

In other words, when we listen to music our brain lights up like a Las Vegas slot machine. Music processing is distributed throughout many regions of the brain. Most importantly, the area that controls our emotions (Amygdala) is adjacent to the area dealing with memory (Hippocampus). Both areas are simultaneously active while music is playing. No other human activity has the same effect on our brains. Human speech, non-musical sounds and reading all fail to achieve the addictive response that music creates – that simultaneous stimulation of our emotions and memory.

Recalling musical memories

Growing up in New Jersey in the early 1950s I frequently attended Saturday movie matinees (admission was only 25 cents). I enjoyed watching serials, particularly “Flash Gordon”, starring Buster Crabbe. Flash forward (no pun intended) about 25 years and I was listening to Franz Liszt’s “Preludes”. I immediately recognized the music and started to relive scenes from Flash Gordon and memories of watching the serial both at home and in the movies. The Preludes’ theme was part of the score to Flash Gordon and I couldn’t think of one without the other. I had a similar experience with the music from the original black and white “King Kong”. You probably have had similar experiences. Think of the frightening music throughout the movie “Jaws”. The theme and the film are inseparable in our minds. In fact, it is the music which bonds with events as we experience them, enhances and then creates much of the emotional response.   Alfred Hitchcock gave composer Bernard Hermann major credit for creating the suspense and terror in the film “Psycho”. Remove the music and our emotional response nearly vanishes. 

Musical memories with the strongest bonds

The music we tend to be nostalgic about and relate to as “our music”, is that which we associate with our teenage years. Part of the reason for this is that those years are emotionally and chemically charged years of discovery. We remember emotional events because our brain (amygdala) together with neuro transmitters tags our memories as important (again credit to Professor Levitin).

My exploration of jazz commenced in my teenage years. I started to explore much of the “Great American Songbook” at the same time. To this day, if I walk into the middle of an improvisation, I can identify the song if it is a standard. My brain just recognizes the pattern of chords and snippets of melody. My sons, who grew up attached to rock music, identify more with Pink Floyd, Supertramp, or other rock bands.

Naturally, having a strong affinity for one form of music, does not preclude the discovery of other music forms. My affinity for Jazz was founded on an appreciation of masterful technique, musical organization and harmony, emotional content and dynamics. I discovered many of these qualities in classical music and tango (particularly the music of Astor Piazzolla).

Active Listening

Naturally, the involvement of our brains in music and its benefits is only achieved when we are active in the process and the music is not relegated to merely “background”. I have been approached by many generation Millennials who have asked, “How do you listen?’ Do you read while listening? Do you discuss politics or religion while listening? Do you exercise while listening? My response has been simple yet unfathomable, “No, I just listen.”

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Victor Hugo

- BILL KRAUSE


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