Your Brain on Music

The Sound System Between Your Ears

The amazing sound system in the human brain helps explain why people everywhere fill their lives with music


Your Brain on Brains

Use the labeled and unlabeled diagrams (in the media player above) to identify your knowledge of the parts of the ear and brain.

Before American snowboarder Hannah Teter started her routine at the 2006 Winter Olympics, she cranked up her inspiration on her MP3 player. The techno beat of “Communicate” by Strive Roots thumped in her earbuds as she zipped and flipped through her high-flying performance. Her music-fueled energy helped her grab the gold medal in the half-pipe event.

After a physical night of snagging rebounds and putting up points, basketball superstar Chris Bosh wants to slow his mind. Sure, he might fire up Jay-Z on his headphones to get pumped up for a game, but he switches to classical music once he leaves the arena. “Mozart and Beethoven, those are my favorites,” Bosh said in an interview. “After the game, when…it’s time to chill, I’ll probably throw that on.”

Music has the power to motivate and soothe, no doubt about it. But how and why does it affect us? Why do certain songs trigger excitement or make us grin? Why do others bring relaxation, tears, or send shivers down our spines?

These are questions some scientists are asking in their laboratories. They are studying how our brains process music and learning why we respond in the ways we do. They are using new technologies to explore why music—whether it’s reggae, rap, rock, or Rachmaninoff—is celebrated in every human culture.

Exploring how our brains work is one of the most exciting areas of modern-day science. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other high-tech scanners let researchers see which parts of our brains tackle different tasks. With MRIs, a person is slid inside a tube-shaped tank. Then the machine finds where his or her brain “lights up” when undertaking certain activities, such as reading or doing math problems. The scan can also spot what parts of the brain go to work as the person sees pictures, hears sounds, or feels sensations.

How the brain processes music is an exciting area of this research. Researchers have discovered that the brain does not have one special place to analyze music. Instead, different parts of the brain handle different aspects of a song, like rhythm (the beat) and tone (pitch and loudness). And one of the most mind-blowing discoveries is that the parts of the brain that deal with emotions also fire up in response to music. In other words, music is wired directly into our feelings.

Music and feelings have always gone together. Modern scientific research is helping us understand why.

How it Works


Favorite songs activate the same sections of our brains that light up when we eat our favorite food.

How does your favorite song get from your ears to your brain? Here are the basics:

  • Sound waves from an instrument or a sound system reach the outer ear.
  • In the middle ear, the sound waves cause the eardrum and tiny bones to vibrate.
  • The middle ear passes these vibrations to the inner ear.
  • The inner ear includes the snail-shaped cochlea. Inside the fluid-filled cochlea are 20,000–30,000 tiny hair cells. These hair cells are of different sizes that react to different tones and pitches.
  • The inner ear translates vibrations into electrical signals.
  • The electronic signals are carried into the brain by nerve cells called neurons via the cochlear nerve system.
  • The signals travel along the cochlear nerve system to the brain’s cerebral cortex. Like a supercomputer, this part of the brain.
  • Other areas of the brain add their power to analyze different elements within the music, such as rhythm, pitch, and dynamics.

The Brain


As reported in Scientific American, researchers have found that trained musicians have auditory cortexes that are 130 percent larger than those of non-musicians.

Once the nerves deliver musical signals inside the skull, the brain goes to work. Researchers now realize music is not just processed in one part of the brain. Performing and listening to music gives big chunks of your brain a workout.

Use the labeled images in the media player (above) to locate the parts of the brain highlighted below. Once you've found them, see if you can locate them on the unlabeled images!

The belt and parabelt are located on the right side of the brain. They are mainly responsible for figuring out a song’s rhythm. When creating rhythm by tapping toes or beating a drum, the motor cortex and cerebellum get involved.

Pitch and Tone
The recognition and understanding of pitch and tone are mainly handled by the auditory cortex. This part of the brain also does a lot of the work to analyze a song’s melody and harmony. Some research shows that the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex contribute, too.

Research shows our brains create expectations when listening to a song. For example, it would figure out if a beat is steady or the melody makes sense. But we especially like it when songs surprise us with smart, quirky changes. This analysis takes place in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.

People have an amazing ability to remember music. Chances are you can recognize your favorite song after hearing just a fragment. These memories are stored in the hippocampus.

Musical acts like reading music, playing an instrument, and dancing fires up the cerebellum, motor cortex, sensory cortex, and visual cortex.

Music has the power to trigger feelings in listeners. Three main areas of the brain are responsible for these emotional responses: nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and the cerebellum.



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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