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are highly social, highly musical and highly verbal whereas people who suffer from Autism are withdrawn and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