Music and the Brain

Brittany Hronich, Writer

Despite the various complexities that differentiate between many cultures and age groups, they all share an obvious commonality: music.  Music serves use in celebration, to exaggerate emotion in film, for daily pleasure, and as a coping mechanism.  It has done so for centuries.  A similarity that is present in every region despite societal norms, values, and culture has biological roots.  The brain doesn’t just process music; it is directly impacted by it and its processes determine what music we consider to be meaningful. 

Studies show that music has proven to be able to reduce seizures, boost the immune system, repair brain damage, make one smarter, evoke memories, increase improvement in Parkinson’s patients, and more.  Specifically in regards to memory recall, Nikki Haddad, an incoming BWH psychiatry resident at Harvard University, describes visiting nursing homes and what she witnessed, “You have these patients who are essentially sedated, lying down, eyes closed, not able to communicate.  And when you play a song that they recognize from their youth, their eyes light up.  They’re sitting up, they’re smiling.  It’s just incredible.”  This is because despite diseases like Alzheimer’s that primarily affects short term memory, songs that feel so personal to some listeners are stored in their long term memory.  This memory storing ability specifically takes place in the cerebellum (located towards the back and bottom of the brain) as well as the hippocampus (located towards the center of the brain) which not only regulates memories but emotional responses. Neuroscientist and University of Central Florida professor Kiminobu Sugaya states, “An Alzheimer’s patient, even if he doesn’t recognize his wife, could still play the piano if he learned it when he was young because playing has become a muscle memory.  Those memories in the cerebellum never fade out.”  This is why many individuals enjoy revisiting the music they listened to in their past. When asked whether specific songs have caused distinct memory recall, Central Regional student Veronica Bonelli expressed that different songs brought back specific memories from throughout her childhood and high school years during which she had heard them.

High school students in particular are known for a passionate love for listening to music as a result of an emotional growth in which they’re beginning to discover both themselves and their preferences.  Teenagers also tend to develop passions for listening to music as a result of being able to relate to the lyrics with the new experiences they’re encountering and beginning to process during their early lives.  As well as this, they apply different genres and interests to different events.  For example, Luke Tallman describes listening to rapper NF to get him excited and motivated for his tennis matches.  Ryan Burgess will blast songs by One Direction and Katy Perry during car rides with friends because he doesn’t believe in toxic masculinity and they make him feel good and encourage him to be himself in socializing with others.  Personally, I always choose softer alternative music when relaxing and doing homework.  And of course, we all prefer early 2000’s music to be played at our school dances not only because it’s exciting, but because it also brings back fond memories from our elementary school years.  This prompts the question: how does music interest and pleasure stimulate different areas of the brain?  The amygdala (which reacts and processes many different emotions), the nucleus accumbens (notorious for its role in addiction, it seeks pleasure in reward systems that pertains to listening to music when it’s utilized as a coping mechanism), Wernicke’s Area (it comprehends and works to understand both written and spoken language, therefore when someone particularly values the lyrics of a song their Wernicke’s Area is stimulated), and the temporal lobe (it processes sound, which means when someone particularly enjoys the harmony of a song or classical music their temporal lobe is stimulated) are all at work in deciding what type of songs are our favorite.  The high levels of pleasure, satisfaction, and overall happiness that are felt after listening to our favorite tunes is exactly why the best music for anyone to listen to is their favorite.  

This is because like the sections of the brain listed, gray matter is also most responsive and reactive when one is listening to their favorite music.  And as previously mentioned, music can become addictive when consistently used as a coping mechanism and a reward system develops when listeners wait throughout their day for a free moment to listen to the harmonies of their choice to ease themselves from a bad experience and become pleasured or happy, and ultimately, the nucleus accumbens is increasingly stimulated.  This is why many high school students are extremely passionate about listening to music and have no desire to learn to play an instrument or songwrite.  They don’t become addicted to the art of music, but to how it makes them feel.  With college admissions, sports, maintaining good grades, still trying to find the time to spend with friends and loved ones, and a pandemic that shuts the world down for what will soon be a year, stress skyrockets.  Music offers a safe place.  This is why students Arianna Weber, Cameron Fields, Alexis Jackson, Angelina Ruscitti, Kaitlyn Mcnamee, and Mya Schmidhauser among others, responded that they feel their lives have benefited from listening to music.  Notably, the students polled all have very different musical interests, yet the impacts they all describe are the same.  Nick Sura in particular says, “My life has definitely benefited from music.  It has helped me through countless bad times, and has made many good times even better.”  Similarly, Schmidhauser adds, “Music has definitely benefited my life.  I just feel happier when I am listening and it has given me something else to have a passion for.  But not playing music.”

Michael Trimble, who works with the Institute of Neurology at University College London, and Dale Hesdorffer, who works under the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center and Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University states in their publication, “…studies using brain imaging have shown that the right hemisphere is preferentially activated when listening to music in relation to the emotional experience, and that even imagining music activates areas on this side of the brain.” Not only does this further explain the sentiments of the students polled, but it also supports Susanne K. Langer’s theory that, “…the real stimulus is not the progressive unfolding of the musical structure but the subjective content of the listener’s mind.”  The right and left hemispheres of the brain are ultimately intertwined, but the right hemisphere is more stimulated by emotion.  The images conducted by scientists and Langer’s ideas show that people enjoy music based on how it makes them feel and how it relates to their lives and environment, which shapes what the music means to them.  This is especially true when the lyrics are about a situation or sentiment that the listener may have experienced before if not something similar.  Continuing, while the students polled as well as myself have expressed that a song means more to them when they can relate to the lyrical content, there is a reason classical music was still so popular hundreds of years ago.  Even if there are no words, the sound in itself can offer the listener peace, comfort, ease, melancholy if needed, or a happiness, excitement, and thrill that they feel in no other environment.  This is also why the score utilized in movies is so important.  Eerie music in horror films gives viewers more anxiety and fear.  In Marvel movies, it makes viewers excited.  As certain neurotransmitters experience an excitability in response to different melodies causing this sense of ease, happiness, or sadness (for example, often times sad individuals listen to more depressing music because it makes them feel understood and not alone, which ultimately leads to feeling satisfied) and the listener feels these emotions, it gives the song a new, personal meaning. 

This is why neurobiology can also explain the immense popularity of breakup songs and other tunes describing a failing love.  The amygdala has several bidirectional connections and interfaces that allow it to become aware and react to sensory stimulations.  To give a little background on the amygdala, it is the part of the brain that reacts to stimuli with emotion.  It is the impulse.  It’s what makes people have the urge to punch something, lash out, or engage in risk-taking behaviors.  The prefrontal cortex is quite literally the voice of reason in the brain that rationalizes that these impulses are inappropriate and ultimately can’t happen.  While the amygdala reacts with nearly every emotion, it is most prominent for being the root of anger, anxiety, sadness, and fear.  Of course, the following explanations are an oversimplification for while the entire brain works in unison, the amygdala in particular has a variety of connections and processes.  So, as a result of many sensory related connections, when listening to songs about a failed love (particularly when the listener is experiencing a similar sentiment) the amygdala is stimulated with the emotions expressed in the song.  It offers the listener a release to get all of these harbored emotions out and feel like they’re completely encompassed by their feelings.

A listener’s preferred music also correlates with neuropsychology.  A columnist for writes, “My colleagues and I have published research showing that people’s musical preferences are linked to three broad thinking styles. Empathisers (Type E) have a strong interest in people’s thoughts and emotions. Systemisers (Type S) have a strong interest in patterns, systems and the rules that govern the world. And those who score relatively equally on empathy and systemising are classified as Type B for ‘balanced.’” Fascinatingly, they continue, “To study this phenomenon, we conducted multiple studies with over 4,000 participants. We took data on these participants’ thinking styles and asked them to listen to and indicate their preferences for up to 50 musical excerpts, representing a wide range of genres. Across these studies, we found that empathisers preferred mellow music that had low energy, sad emotions, and emotional depth, as heard in R&B, soft rock, and singer-songwriter genres. For example, empathising was linked to preferences for “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones and Jeff Buckley’s recording of “Hallelujah”. On the other hand, systemisers preferred more intense music, as heard in hard rock, punk and heavy metal genres. Systemisers also preferred music with intellectual depth and complexity as heard in avant-garde classical genres. For example, systemizing was linked to preferences for Alexander Scriabin’s “Etude opus 65 no 3”. Importantly, those who are Type B, had a tendency to prefer music that spans more of a range than the other two thinking styles.”  In addition, songs with profound bass lines are more appealing to extroverts.  Complex musical styles (classical music, jazz) are more appealing to creative individuals with above average IQ scores.  

As part of the human experience, music is nearly everywhere one can look.  The extensive history and records of mankind have proven that music has always been essential for all types of people have applied it to various situations and purposes.  This sense of need is rooted in how in the many ways it interacts with the brain.

Some of the polled students’ favorite songs/artists:

Luke Tallman

  • NF
  • Panic! At the Disco

Mya Schmidhauser

  • P!nk
  • Katy Perry
  • Ke$ha
  • Lady Gaga
  • Arctic Monkeys
  • Just Jack
  • Flowbots
  • Phoenix
  • Gorillaz
  • Weezer
  • System of a Down
  • Alice in Chains

Veronica Bonelli

  • Mac Miller
  • Khalid
  • One Direction
  • Harry Styles
  • Ariana Grande
  • Ashe with Niall Hiram: Moral of the Story
  • Mac Miller: Blue World
  • One Direction: Stockholm Syndrome

Alexis Jackson

  • Olivia O’Brien
  • Shawn Mendes
  • Tate Mcrae
  • Adele: Someone Like You
  • Molly Kate Kestner: His Daughter
  • Elvis Presley: Can’t Help Falling In Love With You
  • Plain White T’s: Hey There Delilah

Arianna Weber

  • Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • Tame Impala
  • Tyler the Creator
  • Harry Styles: She
  • Tame Impala: Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
  • Cage the Elephant: Cigarette Daydreams

Nick Sura

  • Usher
  • Blackbear
  • Eminem

Cameron Fields

  • Maroon 5
  • Lizzo
  • Taylor Swift
  • The Weeknd
  • Billy Joel
  • Static
  • Ben El Tavori
  • Lizzo: Truth Hurts
  • Maroon 5: Unkiss Me
  • The Weeknd: Blinding Lights
  • Taylor Swift: You Belong With Me
  • Ariana Grande: Problem

Kaitlyn Mcnamee

  • Lofi
  • Harry Styles

Brittany Hronich

    • Daniel Caesar
    • The Driver Era
    • Bruce Springsteen
    • Shawn Mendes
    • John Mayer
    • Taylor Swift
  • Colony House: Silhouettes
  • Taylor Swift: August and The Lakes
  • The Driver Era: Take Me Away and Fade
  • Bruce Springsteen: The Wayfarer (The Film Version), Bobby Jean,  and Jungleland
  • Shawn Mendes: Where Were You in the Morning? and Dream
  • Daniel Caesar: Hold Me Down



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  Very Well Mind, 28 Jan. 2020,



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     York, Penguin Books, 2018. 

  • Trimble, Michael, and Dale Hesdorffer. “Music and the brain: the neuroscience of

     music and musical appreciation.” NCBI, 1 may 2017,


  • “What Do Your Musical Tastes Say about Your Personality?”, 1 Dec. 2015,



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