Interactive Docs

Your Brain on Music

A Keystone to the Human Experience

Music surrounds the human experience. As infants, we react to music before we can walk and as adults we spend more money on music than sex or prescription drugs. We mourn to music, celebrate to music, relax to music, eat to music, shop to music, exercise to music and go to war to music. In fact, music has been a part of every human culture ever known to exist.

It is undeniable that music is a keystone to the human experience, but where does is come from?

Music is not a thing in itself, but rather it is a behavior and a function of our physiology. It comes from within us, or more specifically our brains. Like a key to a lock, music has the remarkable ability to unleash a chain of reactions within our brain and body eliciting significant sensational experiences, but how?

Perceiving Pitch

Our experience of music first relies on interpreting relative differences in pitch. Outside of our own experience, sound exists only as a vibration of particles but it takes a brain to decode those vibrations into our perception of sound.

The process of decoding sound begins within the temporal lobe. Neurons in this region are configured into what’s called a tonotopic map. Like keys on a piano, the tonotopic map is organized by high to low where each cell is programed to react only to specific frequencies. While the ear is what transcribes the air’s vibrations, the temporal lobe is where our experience of sound originates. In other words, every sound you have heard has a corresponding neuron in the temporal region.


All music, no matter the culture contains an element of rhythm. It is not surprising that most music exists within the range of 50-180 beats per minute, roughly the range of the human heartbeat. But a heart cannot beat without a brain at the steering wheel.

The cerebellum is a brain region responsible for the coordination and regulation of muscle movement.

This region is the most basic and ancient portion of the brain and is shared in all vertebrate species. Research indicates that musical rhythm influences the cerebellum’s regulation of muscle contractions. In your experience, you may sense your heart rate and breathing rate speed up or slow down, feel a need to move or dance, experience a burst of energy, or a need to coordinate yourself the beat.


We wouldn’t listen to music if it didn’t make us feel good. The same part of the brain that responds to drugs, food, and money is also the part that makes music enjoyable.

The nucleus accumbens is your brain’s feel good center giving us sensations of pleasure and reward. When we hear a song we like, this part of the brain floods with dopamine, a neurotransmitter largely responsible for positive sensations.

Many recreational drugs manipulate the brain’s absorption and production of dopamine, which contributes to their addictive nature. However during a peak musical shift, sometimes called a chorus or drop, the brain releases more dopamine than when on cocaine.

Whether it’s a small party or massive football game, music often accompanies social events. Often times we feel more comfortable, and affable when listening to music in groups, and that is because listening to music releases oxytocin the neurotransmitter involved in warm feelings of social bonding, love, and intimacy.


While music increases the release of feel good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and oxytocin, it also decreases the release of chemicals responsible for negative emotions. Cortisol is a hormone released during feelings of stress and anxiety and has a negative impact on the immune system. Studies have shown that music significantly decreases the release of cortisol both in non-stressful and stressful situations. This is one of the reasons that music creates a calming and relaxing sensation and can help people function in stressful situations.


The Tip of the Iceburg

Although recent research has shed light on many of music’s mysteries, the door has

only just been opened. While we know how music affects the brain on a basic level, the vast relationships and interconnections within the brain’s complex network is only beginning to be understood. With an experience as complex as music, our current knowledge is only the tip of the iceberg and many more discoveries await.

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