Your brain on music

Music lights up almost every area of the brain, which shouldn’t be a surprise since it makes people tap their feet, encourages the recollection of vivid memories and has the potential to lighten the mood.

Around the outside

1. Prefrontal cortex: This brain region plays a role in the creation, satisfaction and violation of expectations. It may react, for instance, when a beat goes missing. Recent work has shown that during improvisation a part of the prefrontal cortex involved in monitoring performance shuts down, while parts involved in self-initiated thoughts ramp up.

2. Motor cortex: Music is not independent of motion. Foot-tapping and dancing often accompany a good beat, meaning the motor cortex gets involved. And playing an instrument requires carefully timed physical movements. In some cases, this area of the brain is engaged when a person simply hears notes, suggesting a strong link to the auditory cortex.

3. Sensory cortex: Playing an instrument sends tactile messages to the sensory cortex, as keys are hit, for example.

4. Auditory cortex: Hearing any sound, including music, involves this region, which contains a map of pitches for the perception and analysis of tones.

5. Visual cortex: Reading music or watching a performer’s movements activates the visual cortex.

The inside track

6. Cerebellum: Movements such as foot-tapping and dancing activate this part of the brain. This could be because of the cerebellum’s role in timing and synchrony; it helps people track the beat. The cerebellum is also involved in the emotional side of music, lighting up with likable or familiar music, and appears to sense the difference between major and minor chords.

7. Hippocampus: Known to play a role in long-term memory, the hippocampus (part of which is shown) may help the brain retrieve memories that give a sound meaning or context. It also helps people link music they have heard before to an experience and to a given context, possibly explaining why it is activated during pleasant or emotionally charged music.

8. Amygdala: The amygdala seems to be involved in musical memories. It reacts differently to major and minor chords, and music that leads to chills tends to affect it. Studies suggest the skillful repetition heard in music is emotionally satisfying.

9. Nucleus accumbens: This brain structure is thought to be the center of the reward system. It reacts to emotional music, perhaps through the release of dopamine.

Source: D.J. Levitin and A.K. Tirovolas/Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2009; Image: Charles Floyd.