Chapter 7: Music and the Brain

Chapter summary

Scientists are only recently beginning to investigate the relationship between music and the brain as the field of neuroscience develops. This chapter covers some of this research in terms of music processing, active listening, and benefits of the music-brain connection.


The brain is malleable from childhood to adulthood. If musical training is found to have a beneficial effect on brain function beyond that involved in musical performance, this may have implications for the education of children, for life-long strategies to preserve the fitness of the aging brain…

—C. Pantev (Baycrest, 2002)

Dr. Christo Pantev made the above statement over 10 years ago, when embarking on a groundbreaking study to show that musicians’ brains hear music differently from those of non-musicians. This began a wave of neurological studies on music and the brain, all of which point to the same conclusion: that musical study and training are indeed beneficial to the human brain.

Brain research is proceeding at an amazing pace, with countless new studies and discoveries appearing every year. With that said, let’s take a look at what we currently know about the impact of music on the brain and beyond, keeping in mind that this information will become more and more detailed and specific in the coming years. In this chapter, we will examine the following questions: Is music innate to humans? How does the brain process music? How does the brain respond to music making? Music listening? What are some of the overall benefits of music?

I. Are We Hardwired for Music?

Music is a human universal. In order to determine if a certain human trait is part of the brain’s hardwiring, scientists submit it to a set of criteria. Some of the questions concerning the biological evidence of music’s hardwiring include 1) whether or not it is present in all cultures; 2) if the ability to process music appears early in life, i.e., it is found in infants; 3) if examples of music are found in the animal world; and 4) if there are specialized areas of the brain dedicated to it. Music fulfills all of these criteria, and is definitely hard-wired in the human brain.

All Cultures Have Music

For thousands of years people have sung, performed, and enjoyed music. World travelers and social scientists have consistently observed that all of the people in the world have some type of music, and all people recognize music when they hear it, even if they have different names and categories for what they hear. While the music of other cultures will sound different and have different meanings and emotions associated with it, every culture makes it.

Researchers in different fields have summarized conclusions about the nature of music and culture after many years of observing human behavior and music. Alan Merriam, an anthropologist and one of the founders of ethnomusicology, created a list of ten commonalities of musical behavior after travelling extensively among many different people. His list, known as the “Ten Functions of Music,” is included in his landmark study The Anthropology of Music (1964).

  1. Emotional expression
  2. Aesthetic enjoyment
  3. Entertainment
  4. Communication
  5. Symbolic representation
  6. Physical response
  7. Enforcing conformity to social norms
  8. Validating social institutions and religious rituals
  9. Providing continuity and stability of culture
  10. Facilitating social integration

Everett Gaston, a psychologist, music educator, and founding father of music therapy, developed a similar list containing eight fundamental considerations of the impact of music on humans concerning his work on music and therapy in Music in Therapy (1968).

  1. All humans need aesthetic expression and experiences
  2. Musical experiences are culturally determined
  3. Music has spiritual significance
  4. Music is communication
  5. Music structures reality
  6. Music is derived from the deepest and most tender human emotions
  7. Music serves as a source of personal gratification
  8. The potency of musical effects are greatest in social interactions

Physiological and Cultural Functions of Music

It is impossible to separate what we now know about the role of the body in the creation of music from cultural musical behaviors. Just how much of a role the neurological plays in music making and perception and how much is governed by music as a cultural institution remains to be seen. However, it is valuable to consider the implications of both when discussing music’s impact on humans. After several decades of research, I have developed a set of functions for music that takes into account the role of neurology and physiology as well as culture in its relationship to music.

Socially connects
  • Integrates, mobilizes, controls, expresses, unites, and normalizes.
  • History, memory, emotions, cultural beliefs, and social mores. It educates, creates the status quo, and also protests against it.
Coordinates and instigates neurological and physical movement
  • Work/labor, military drills, dance, ritual, and trance.
  • Songs and chants use the beat to maintain a group’s tempo and coordinate movements, or it stimulates entrainment found in trance by lining up the brain’s frequencies with that of sound.
Stimulates pleasure senses
  • Excites, emotes, entertains, and elicits neurochemical responses, such as sweaty hands and a rapid heartbeat.
  • It’s addictive, creating cycles of expectation and satisfying that anticipation. It stimulates the pleasure center in the ancient part of the brain responsible for rewarding stimuli such as food or sex.
  • We get a “chill” when listening to music from a dopamine release anticipating a peak emotional response.
Alters perception
  • Regulates and changes mood/emotion. It’s therapeutic, cathartic, and allows transcendence.
  • Fosters flexible experiencing of time.
  • Increases focus and attention and stimulates large areas of the brain.
Constructs identity (cultural and personal)
  • Defines, represents, symbolizes, expresses, and transforms (Sarrazin, 2014).

activity 7a: Try this

In our culture, we tend to think of music mostly as entertainment. After studying the three lists given above, can you think of examples of alternate uses for music? Can you think of examples of human relationships with music from your own experience? What do you use music for? When? How do you or others use music to foster relationships with others? To communicate? To restructure reality?


Musical Ability in Infants

According to recent neurological research, “the ability to perceive and enjoy music is an inborn human trait” (Sousa, 2011, p. 221). If music is an inborn and biological component, it should be found in infants, as well as in other animal species. Musical ability is indeed found in infants, who at only a few months old can manipulate an object in response to hearing certain songs. Infants can also differentiate between sounds as well as recognize different melodies. They are well aware of their mother’s voice and will turn their heads towards it when she speaks.

Musical Use in Animal Culture

Another approach scientists take to determine if we are hardwired for music is looking for examples in the animal world. We are all aware of the presence of birdsong and the musical patterns emitted by dolphins and whales to communicate, but so far, it has been difficult to determine if animals have the ability for abstraction required to understand music and art. However, there are growing examples in animal research demonstrating that animals do indeed use music, and that monkeys and other animals use musical patterns and can hear abstractions in music as well. A study by Kaplan (2009) indicates that animals are responsive to music and may even engage in music activity.

Specialized Areas of the Brain

The final clue as to music’s innateness is that there are many areas of the brain that process music. The auditory cortex has areas that process pitch, while other areas of the brain combine biology and culture to stimulate the limbic system to respond emotionally to music.

II. How the Brain Processes Music

Neurologists have long known that there were areas of the brain specifically dedicated to music, but through fMRIs and Pet scans conducted in live time, they’ve discovered that music’s reach is far more extensive. When listening to music, sound vibrations enter the auditory cortex and are instantaneously broken down into elements of pitch, timbre, spatial relations, and tone duration. The data is then sent to other parts of the brain and compared against stored sound associations (do I run or stay) and emotional responses (do I like it or not), stimulating many parts of the brain in both hemispheres.

The auditory cortex is the brain’s primary region for hearing and processing sound, and is part of the brain’s cerebral cortex. As we might expect, the auditory cortex helps us discern different sounds processed by the cochlea. It processes frequencies (pitch), and contains numerous neurons organized from low to high (known as a frequency map), which are dedicated to specific pitches. The auditory cortex also recognizes the location of different sound sources in space, and can identify and segregate different auditory objects.

Another aspect of the auditory cortex’s function is how it groups or perceives musical information. Diana Deutsch (2010) writes that the auditory cortex performs fusions and separations of sound components according to the music fundamentals of pitch (frequency) and timing. Pitch information is one of the most significant and most well-understood aspects of the musical brain. Pitch information includes the related concepts of intervals, melody, and harmony. The brain processes pitch information both locally and globally, where local music refers to the intervals between pitches, while global processing refers to the entire contour of the melody. This type of processing may have implications for teaching, and awareness of the brain’s reaction to music can help inform teaching strategies and techniques.

Time information, which includes rhythm, tempo and meter, timbre, meaning, and emotion is less understood. Musical timbre is one of the most critical of all components of music, yet remains one of the most mysterious of all human perceptual attributes. In a 2012 study, Patil et al. examined the neural underpinnings of musical timbre in order to understand the underlying processes of timbre recognition. They observed how timbre is recognized at the mammalian primary auditory cortex to predict human sound source recognition. The primary auditory cortex is one of the oldest and first developed areas of the human brain, suggesting that recognizing timbre is an extremely important function in human evolution. Although neurologists are still exploring how the auditory cortex functions, they now believe that music processing is actually much more complex then initially imagined, and involves many more parts of the brain than previously thought.

activity 7b: Watch this

In 2009, the World Science Festival “Notes and Neurons: In search of the common chorus” features Bobby McFerrin and an array of scientists discussing music’s impact on the human brain.


III. Benefits of Learning Music

Music’s influence on the brain is significant, and includes therapeutic improvements, healing, educational, and cognitive benefits. According to Campbell (2011b), author of the book Healing at the Speed of Sound: How What We Hear Transforms Our Brains and Our Lives, “A child who is moving, dancing and singing learns coordination between their eye, ear and sound early on. And [the experience of participating in music education] helps integrate the social, the emotional and the real context of what we’re learning. There are studies that show children who play music have higher SAT scores, that learning to control rhythm and tempo not only help them get along with others but plants seeds for similar advantages when we get much older.”

Music not only helps increase children’s verbal memory and reduces memory loss during aging, but aids people in healing faster after a stroke, reduces stress and anxiety, increases memory retention, helps transplant recipients, and soothes pain.

Music shows a positive impact on a person’s

  • vision, body awareness, and gross and fine motor skills;
  • directionality—moving expressively in response to directions and use of musical instruments;
  • acquisition of receptive and expressive language, voice in singing;
  • cognitive abilities of memorization, sequencing, imitation, and classification; making relationships and choices affects each child’s ability to create new lyrics, melodies, harmonies, and rhythms and express perceptions of dynamics, mood, form, and timbre;
  • and ability to pay attention.

In a 2006 study, Tallal et al. suggest relationships between musical training, auditory processing, language, and literary skills. The study shows that music training and musical aptitude improves or correlates positively with:

  • Music Processing (melody, rhythm, meter, timbre, harmony, etc.)
  • General Auditory Processing (pitch discrimination, pitch memory, auditory rapid spectrotemporal processing)
  • Language and Literary Skills (reading, phonological awareness, pitch processing in speech, prosody perception, verbal memory, verbal fluency)

The study also indicates that after musical training, there was an improvement in attention, sequencing skills, and processing literary components such as syllables, language skills, and literacy skills.

A two–three-year-long study concluded that children attending a musical play school exhibited significant differences in auditory discrimination and attention compared to children not involved in music. Children with exposure to more musical activities showed more mature processing of auditory features and heightened sensitivity in temporal aspects of sounds, while surprising sounds were less likely to distract the children’s attention (Putkenin et al., 2013).

Study after study records significant findings regarding brain changes in musicians, particularly instrumental musicians’ motor, auditory, and visual-spatial regions (Gaser, 2003). These same brain changes occur at very early ages for young children who play music. Children with only 15 months of musical training demonstrated structural brain changes in early childhood, which correlated with improvements in relevant motor and auditory skills (Hyde et al., 2009).

Activity 7c: learn more

  1. What does music have to do with creativity? This TED talk by Charles Limb discusses just that and more.
  2. How music changes our brains”: An article on how music affects the brain.
  3. An incredible video showing a three-year-old child conducting Beethoven.
  4. An article and video on the psychological effects of music on health and to help the body sleep.


The “Mozart” Effect

In the past decade, scientists have become very interested in studying the effects of sound on the human brain, and parents have rushed to embrace and apply any possible benefit to the development of their children. One of the early studies that spurred a rather heightened curiosity of the benefits of music was dubbed the “Mozart Effect.” In 1993, a study by Rauscher et al. was published, which looked at the possible correlations between listening to different types of music and intelligence. Soon after, the study erroneously credited with the notion that listening to classical music, particularly the music of Mozart, made you more intelligent. As a result, people started buying and playing Mozart to their children thinking that this would increase their intelligence. Georgia Governor Zell Miller, in 1998, proposed sending every newborn in the state a copy of a classical CD based on this supposed “effect.” The Baby Einstein toy company was also launched in reaction to this study. However, the study only demonstrated a small benefit in the area of spatial reasoning as a result of listening to Mozart, and the limited results showed that a person’s IQ increased for only a brief period of time—no longer than 15 minutes, after which it returned to normal. Other studies have not been able to replicate even the 15-minute bump in IQ.

Read this Governor Miller’s reaction to the “Mozart Effect”

IV. Listening to Music vs. Creating Music

Both listening to and creating music are crucial factors in engaging a child’s brain with music. There is, however, a clear difference in what happens in our brains when we listen to music and when we make music.

In terms of listening to music, there is a difference between the intensity and focus required to simply hear music (or hearing anything for that matter) and listening to music. Hearing is the act of perceiving sounds by the ear. In other words, if you are not hearing impaired, your ear will pick up and receive sounds. Good and active listening, on the other hand, is something that is done consciously, and requires some type of focus or engagement on behalf of the individual. Most of us are well aware of the fact that we can hear something without really listening to it or understanding it.

It is also true that all listening is not the same. In terms of our daily interactions with sound, we are constantly bombarded with all types of sounds, both chosen and unchosen. Kassabian (2013) calls the constant presence of music in modern life “ubiquitous listening.” Children are also inundated with sounds that enhance life or distract from it, dividing children’s already fragile attention and making it difficult for them to filter out unwanted noises and focus.

Understanding the full range of listening possibilities begins with what Peterson (2006) identifies as three types of listening: passive listening, responsive listening, and active listening.

  • Passive listening means that music is in the background, and usually the person is doing something else while the music is playing. There is very little in the way of interaction or engagement with the music.
    • Classroom examples: Playing music while children are doing homework.
  • Responsive listening means that music creates an atmosphere. The listener responds with heightened emotion.
    • Classroom examples: Playing calming music after an active event; playing music before the school day starts.
  • Active listening means that music is the main focus. The listener interacts with the music in a cognitive, emotional, and meaningful way.
    • Classroom examples: Finding the meaning of the piece through the lyrics, recognizing musical patterns, and finding elements such as phrases, direction of the melody, and rhythm.

These three types of listening are not ranked in any way, nor are these categories concrete. There are specific times when one type will fulfill the goal of an activity more effectively than another, and, as Peterson points out (2006), sometimes you find yourself actively listening to a piece of background music or even a ring tone, or you might just as easily disengage from a live concert recital as an audience member. All music listening can’t be active listening. It is important to keep in mind that simply exposing children to music in and of itself is already extremely beneficial and highly influential in terms of developing extended musical tastes, and connects music to the well being of the child on an emotional and cognitive level. Creating active listeners who can focus, concentrate, and direct their attention should be one of the main goals of teaching, and one in which music can play a vital role.

While music listening is wonderful for our brains, it turns out that music performance is really where the fireworks happen.

  • Performing music involves all regions of the brain such as the visual, auditory, motor, sensory, and prefrontal cortices; corpus callosum; hippocampus; and cerebellum. It speeds up communication between the hemispheres and affects language and higher-order brain functioning.
  • Music increases brain plasticity, changing neural pathways. Musicians tend to have greater word memory and more complex neural brain patterning, as well as greater organizational and higher-order executive functioning.
  • Playing an instrument influences generalized parts of the brain used for other functions. People who receive music training demonstrated increased efficiency in many other skills, including linguistic processing ability, and increased motor, auditory, and visual-spatial brain regions (Gaser and Schlaug, 2003).

In short, scientists say that nothing we do as humans uses more parts of our brain and is more complex than playing an instrument.

But until very recently, we didn’t have proof of music’s extensive cognitive benefits. Yet some innate imperative to make music has guaranteed its existence—a remarkable feat considering that music requires such intense cultural investment. But of all of music’s contributions to the human condition, its ability to create social cohesion and communicate emotion has ensured its longevity. Evolutionary psychologists Kirschner and Tomasello strongly suggest that music fosters social bonding and empathy (2010). Children who had previously made music together were significantly more likely to spontaneously help each other than those who had not.

Activity 7d: Try This

Create lesson ideas that involve passive, responsive, and active listening with children.


Active Listening to Music

Guiding children towards more deliberate and active listening that engages the brain and all of its neural connections is highly beneficial. Children should hopefully be able to not only comprehend the musical elements, but also uncover cognitive meaning and the memory aspects of the song in order to stimulate all of the parts of the brain mentioned in the previous section.

Music listening is, of course, closely related to brain function. Auditory stimulation through simple activities can enhance attention in children, exercise the brain, and create a flexible and responsive brain. Auditory discrimination exercises work the child’s ability to hear differences in sound in order to organize and make sense of sound. These exercises provide focal points for children’s active listening and response, working local listening.

Although these exercises were developed for children with special needs, they are highly applicable in developing crucial musical listening skills and for helping children recognize categories of music, instruments, and timbre of sounds.

Exercises for engaging in auditory discrimination.

Exercises for engaging in Auditory Discrimination

Aural-visual identification

  • Children listen to sounds on a CD and point to a picture of the object making the sound and name it.
  • Point to a real object that makes the sound and then try it out.
  • Sound walk: pupils draw pictures or write down the names of the sounds they hear on the walk.
  • Show children picture-noun cards and have them clap the syllable beats.
  • Aural identification: Listen to the sound of real objects with eyes closed. Children guess and name.
  • Sound bingo: Listen to sounds and cover the correct picture.
  • Clap or tap rhythms of children’s names and have them identify them.

Grouping sounds

  • Ask children to group similar sounds by source (animals, musical instruments, vehicles); by timbre (rough, airy, scratchy); or by material (wooden, metallic, electronic).
  • Odd one out: ask the pupils to identify the sound that is not part of a group of sounds (e.g. dogs barking, pig grunting, cow mooing, musical instrument playing).

Musical discrimination

  • Discriminate between loud/quiet, high/low, fast/slow, rough/smooth, contrasting phrases or sections.

Activity 7e: try this

Think of some activities that incorporate the above exercises. How might you adapt some of these to a language arts lesson? A social studies lesson? An art lesson?



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active listening: music is the main focus; the listener interacts with the music in a cognitive, emotional, and meaningful way

auditory discrimination: the ability to hear differences in sound in order to organize and make sense of sound

auditory stimulation: stimulating the brain through sound such as music

hearing: the act of perceiving sounds through the ear

passive listening: music is in the background, and usually the person is doing something else while the music is playing; there is very little in the way of interaction or engagement with the music

responsive listening: means that music creates an atmosphere; the listener responds with heightened emotion