How the Brain Processes Music
By Jennifer Buchanan
As we continue learning more and more about the power of music to make a difference in the lives of the weary and the injured , let us never lose sight of how music can also impact our day-to-day lives . Let ’ s start with a brief review of how the brain processes music — or at least some of it — and how we can take these insights into our listening of music , on purpose , for our well-being .
I remember when I was in grade school , I would hear statements like , ‘ if you are musical , you are also good at math ,’ and I can remember wishing that was true . Well , we have learned a lot more since I was young . Neurologists have long known that there were areas of the brain specifica lly dedicated to processing music , and with the advent of advanced brain imaging technology , they found that music ’ s reach is far more extensive than previously believed . For example , when we listen to music , sound vibrations in the ear are converted to neural messages and transmitted to the thalamus , the brain ’ s ‘ sensory relay station .’ After reaching the thalamus , sound information is passed to the auditory cortex and instantaneously broken down into many different elements including timing , pitch , and tone . Auditory information is also sent to other parts of the brain to be compared against historical associations and emotional responses ( do I like it or not ?), stimulating many parts of the brain in both hemispheres .
Overall , engaging with music involves a complex network of brain regions and processes , and has been shown to have a wide range of positive effects on cognition , emotion , and most definitely on wellbeing .
When our brain feels like it ’ s on fire We can all feel locked up at times , and those of us who turn to music know that it can often be the key to soothe , connect and inspire . There have been numerous studies on the effects of music on our mental health . We now know that music directly affects the heart of our brain ’ s emotional system .
Just a small collection of cells at the base of the brain spanning both hemispheres , the amygdala is an emotional hotspot . Whenever we see or hear something that makes us feel threatened or unsafe , the amygdala shifts into gear , and we act before we have time to think . The frontal lobe works in concert with the amygdala , toning down its activity to help us keep our emotions in check and make thoughtful decisions . But when we ’ re stressed , the amygdala wins the fight . When your amygdala is on fire , all you want to do is fight , flee , or freeze or crawl under the covers with a bag of chips . It feels next to impossible to make any decision — let alone a good decision .
Music can help stamp out this flame When you tune in to music that takes you down memory lane , you begin to activate your hippocampus , the area in the brain where music and memories come alive . When this happens , you experience more feelings of creativity , inspiration , and warmth . As stress declines , your frontal cortex is able to regain control so you can remember what you need to do , tackle a new project with more flexible thinking , and generally feel a level of control you didn ’ t have just minutes before when you were triggered . The best part ? You can now make your next , best decision with better objectivity and confidence .
Sometimes life can throw us for a loop and what was once manageable becomes difficult or overwhelming . In the field of neuroscience , it is widely acknowledged that emotional and physical wellbeing are closely intertwined . Mental health requires a lot of ingredients - music is certainly one of them .
The power of music The science behind music therapy , music and medicine , and music and health and wellbeing is becoming well documented , but it is also most certainly just the tip of the information iceberg . Much more will be revealed over time . Let ’ s stay curious and continue to learn as much as we can - our brains can only benefit ! And remember to access a Certified Music Therapist ( MTA ) for further support . Here are a few reminders of the ways that music and music therapy can have a positive impact :
Emotional regulation : Music can help to regulate our mood and reduce feelings of stress .
Memory enhancement : Music can enhance memory formation and retrieval , and can be a useful tool for improving learning and retention of information .
Pain relief : Music has been shown to have analgesic effects , reducing pain perception .
Improved cognitive function : Music supports language processing , attention , and working memory .
Social bonding : Music brings people together and promotes feelings of connection and unity .
Physical performance enhancement : Music gives a boost to sports and exercise .
Mood enhancement : And finally , the right music at the right time can promote feelings of happiness , relaxation , and well-being .
Jennifer Buchanan , MBA , MTA , is Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Music Therapists , a Certified Music Therapist , and Author of ‘ Wellness , Wellplayed : The Power of a Playlist .’ She can be reached at jennifer @ jbmusic . ca .
30 CANADIAN MUSICIAN