Whether you’re a rockstar on stage or just listening to the radio on your way to work, your brain is busily parsing the sounds that make up music. But how does it do it?
It starts with sound waves.
Sound in the Ear
All sound waves enter the body in the same way, through the outer ear, which is specially suited to amplify sound waves that bounce off its many folds and bends. Once “caught,” the sound waves enter the ear canal, eventually reaching and reverberating against the eardrum. The eardrum vibrates back and forth, causing the piston-like chain of tiny bones behind it to flex back and forth, which in turn generates pressure and “waves” in the fluid of the inner ear (specifically the cochlea). The cochlea converts these waves into electric signals that the brain can parse and interpret as sound.
The parts of the brain affected by these electric signals depend on a number of factors, but our frontal and temporal lobes are always the first to light up. They process aspects of the music like tempo, frequency, and melody. A song with a driving beat may trigger your motor cortex, which would cause your foot to tap, your hips to sway, your head to bang, etc. And if a song has lyrics, the two main language processing areas of the brain are activated — Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area.
But what if a song has lyrics we can’t understand — when they’re in another language, for instance? What parts of our brain does this trigger? Everything from the auditory complex to the “language comprehension center” to the visual cortex (this one in particular may be attributed to the idea that our brains try to construct visual imagery that relates to the tones and pitches we’re hearing).
From Psyche to Social
Of course, it isn’t all about switches being flicked on and off — music also affects our brains in ways that can change the psyche. Music with a prosocial message, for instance, has been shown to foster positive, prosocial behavior — think of much of the music from the 1960s. Other research has found that music featuring antisocial lyrics can cause the listener to exhibit antisocial behavior. Many of these studies were focused on rap music, which may show some bias, but it’s still a fascinating finding.
There have been many cases around the world of music being used as a method of torture, most notably in secret prisons and standoffs. Playing the same song ad nauseum has been used both as a way to induce sleep deprivation and also simply to torment people. The songs used on prisoners at Guantanamo include the “I Love You” theme from Barney and the Meow Mix jingle.
Music can also be used as a tool for good. For example, music therapy is a clinical method for treating depression that gets documented positive results. It can include listening to music or creating it. Because music interacts differently with the brain than plain speech, music therapy may be more helpful to some than a traditional form of counseling.
Research has found “direct evidence that music training has a biological effect on children’s developing nervous systems.” Attending a music class improves children’s literacy and ability to process speech.
The most significant benefits were seen in students that played musical instruments — that is, those who were actively creating and interacting with music. This is part of the reason that the idea that playing Mozart or other classical music to your baby will make them smarter has been debunked.
Playing a musical instrument engages more parts of the brain than simply listening – visual and motor cortices as well as auditory. This effectively gives the brain a “full body workout.”
Music can boost our day-to-day mood, too. Singing releases endorphins in the brain — it also requires deep breathing. Singing and exercise have both these stress-reducing benefits in common. So the next time you’re driving alone and feeling anxious, try belting out your favorite jam to de-stress.
This post is co-written by Nic Hartmann, senior motion designer.