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Your Mind on Music

PS2007's picture
Your Mind on Music

        Music plays a huge role in our lives.  Whether you are at a concert or listening to music on your ipod at

the gym, whether you are listening to classical music or rock music your brain is constantly processing

melodies, harmonies, and lyrics.  But what makes music so enjoyable?  Why do we seek out new music, and

listen to old favorites over and over again?  What dictates our music choices—why do some people love

country music while others enjoy rap?  At first music may seem unimportant, but in reality it is a

fundamental part of any culture.  Recently researchers have begun to try to decipher the mystery that is

music, and our attraction to it.  

        The mental processes involved in listening to music are complex, “Your inner ear contains a spiral sheet

that the sounds of music pluck like a guitar string. This plucking triggers the firing of brain cells that make up

the hearing parts of your brain. At the highest station, the auditory cortex, just above your ears, these firing

cells generate the conscious experience of music. Different patterns of firing excite other ensembles of cells,

and these associate the sound of music with feelings, thoughts, and past experiences” (1).  Emotion,

expectation, perception and memory are also involved in how we perceive music (2).  

        Music may even be biological, in the sense that certain hemispheres in the brain are more responsive to

music than language.  Music also helps exercise the brain, because listening to and playing music involve

different brain systems.  Music can help with cognition, language skills, reasoning and creativity.  Alzheimer’s

patients have been known to remember the tunes of songs and how to play them long after their memory

has deteriorated in an extreme way (3).  

        One explanation for the pervasive presence of music is that music evolved as a way for humans to

create communities and interact with one another.  Music requires teamwork to create and can give a group

of people an identity.  Evidence for the theory that music and sociability are connected can be found in two

forms of mental disorders.  People suffering from Williams Syndrome are considered mentally retarded but

are highly social, highly musical and highly verbal whereas people who suffer from Autism are withdrawn and

have very limited verbal and musical skills (4).  

        That may explain why we enjoy music, but what about why our specific music taste?  New research

suggests that our taste in music is defined by our culture.  In other words, “Human musical preferences are

fundamentally shaped not by elegant algorithms or ratios but by the messy sounds of real life, and of speech

in particular -- which in turn is shaped by our evolutionary heritage…the explanation of music, like the

explanation of any product of the mind, must be rooted in biology” (5).  A research study on musical tastes in

Britain found that there was a difference in the speed and genre of music preferred in the different regions of

Britain.  This may have to do with the historical music tastes of the area, and groups of people immigrating to

specific areas.  Urban areas have more diverse musical tastes, because they contain a more diverse group of

people.  As access to music becomes easier through technology such as the Internet, location will probably

play a smaller factor in defining our musical tastes (6).

        Although historically neuroscience research about music has been scarce, researchers are shifting their

beliefs and beginning to view music as an important part of our culture and identity.  Music research has

become much more prolific, and studies have shown that music plays a significant role in cognitive

processes.  We enjoy listening to music, and at the same time it is exercising our brain and keeping us

mentally active.  I look forward to reading more research on this subject in the future, since I believe that

music is integral part of who we are as human beings.


Works Cited








Paul Grobstein's picture

music and the brain

Though I've yet to read it, I'd be that Oliver Sach's Musicophilia is (the title notwithstanding) an interesting exploration of this area.