YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC by KC Katalbas, Planetarium Educator


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Adventure Science Center Blog

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YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC by KC Katalbas, Planetarium Educator

Music is powerful. You've probably experienced this if your mood shifts when you hear a great song, or you've let a playlist of soothing piano pieces calm you down, or you've been in a room full of people all shouting the same lyrics at a concert. No matter the situation, music holds a certain kind of electricity with people. So why? With all this power, what's going on inside our brains when we listen to music?

To answer that question, we turn to the people who are researching the science of the brain… neuroscientists. Using special machines called FMRI and PET scanners, neuroscientists can see certain regions of the brain “light up” to corresponding activities like reading or math. When researchers like Daniel Levitin played music for people participating in studies, they expected to see a similar situation. However, when they looked further, they found that listening to music ignites whole symphony of neurons firing in in every part of the brain we’ve mapped!


More is going on in music than just sounds and noise, and different parts of your brain have to process it all out. Think about all that’s going on in your head when you’re listening to your favorite song. One part of your brain is recognizing that it’s not just noise you’re listening to, but music. It’s using a whole system of detectors in the auditory cortex looking for signs of music, like pitch and tempo and timbre. Since you know this song well, the part of your brain that deals with memory – called the hippocampus – gets involved as well. Tapping along to the beat also involves a whole other region responsible for timing circuits in the cerebellum. Since it’s your favorite song, it strikes an emotional chord with you causing the parts of your brain responsible for processing emotions, like the prefrontal cortex, chime in as well.

Because music affects so much of the brain, it’s no surprise music influences other parts of our behavior as well, like health, fitness, and even memory.

Have you ever known all the words to a song you haven’t heard in years? Because your brain has connected those lyrics to even more things like patterns and tones, you are able to retain it better. Athletes listening to music are able to train better since the brain’s motor systems are connected to music.

One of the most exciting breakthroughs in music’s effect on the brain is its ability to heal after trauma. When a gunshot wound rendered her unable to speak, former congresswoman Gabby Giffords used singing, a music therapy technique, to regain her speech. Music therapy has also shown to be an incredibly effective supplement to painkillers or sedatives in hospitals and cancer treatment center.

Music remains to be a powerful force through the ages largely because of its ability to help us communicate with each other. We can see that all across Music City, and we’re seeing it even more in the symphony of neurons in our brains as well.

- KC Katalbas, Planetarium Educator

Posted by Molly Hornbuckle at 3:00 PM
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