Music and the Brain

Music has encapsulated individuals across all cultures going back thousands of years. It has been the epicentre of traditional tribal ceremonies across the world. It has been used by the likes of Nas, John Lennon and Lauryn Hill as a form of expression, to inspire the world and as a non-physical emotive weapon. Whether it be on the West End stage, or at your local cinema, music represents the cardinal ingredient used to take an audience on an emotional journey.

Regrettably, we all relate to that feeling associated with exam revision where you ask yourself if you are ever going to be able to remember all of those history dates…all those drug names and classes for the treatment of hypotension…your discussion points on how Marxist interpretations influence how geographers think about economy. Yet have you ever stopped and thought about the number of songs you can completely recall all of the lyrics to? How exactly is it possible to struggle so much to remember so many things, but never forget the lyrics to your favourite songs (sometimes even the songs you hate)? Have you ever listened to the lyrics of a song and sworn that it was written just for you? Or what about that particular motif which takes you straight back to a specific point in time, perhaps with a special person? For the duration of that piece you can recall every last detail and feel the goose bumps return on your skin. This is not a novel topic of interest within neuroscience; it has been explored in books such as ‘Musicophilia’ by Oliver Sacks or ‘This is your brain on music’ by Daniel Levitin for a long time, however I still feel that among the majority it is not something that people really talk or read about.

I vividly remember watching a 2009 BBC documentary, ‘The Alzheimer’s Choir’, which revealed – quite beautifully – the healing power of music. Singing for the Brain is a UK-based service composed of Alzheimer’s sufferers and their spouses. They convene to sing a variety of familiar songs in order to stimulate and aid expression by those who have lost their voices. An extraordinary transformation occurred on the screen before me as I watched several sufferers in a nursing home sing along to their favourite songs (where they had previously been unable to recall the names of their children or the day of the week). In some exceptional cases, attempts were made to dance on the spot or get up from their seats. This was a catalytic event in my life; pushing me further towards the field of Neuroscience in a quest to better understand the relationship between music and our brains…how could a string of sound waves be responsible for such a phenomenon? And how many other many other wonderful things is music scientifically accountable for?

Bob Snyder contends that memory and its limitations influence how we perceive and structure events and time sequences. It is very rarely the case that music is not used for communication – be it an idea, an emotion or a story – and where this occurs, musical structure must consider the structure of auditory memory. Echoic memory, short-term memory and long-term memory comprise the three auditory memory processes that correlate accordingly with three different musical levels based on the differences in their time scales. The level of fusion represents the early unconscious processing of frequency and pitch. The level of melodic and rhythmic grouping constitutes the acquisition of melodic and/or rhythmic phrases that last as long as the timescale for short-term memory. Finally, the level of form, associated with the chemical and structural changes in the brain that occur during unconscious processing of long-term memories, correlates with entire sections of musical pieces (Snyder, 2000). What does this mean? Well in short, Snyder is trying to convey the importance of using memory to understand the organisation of music. Can the correlation between music and the neural processes within our brain be the reason that it resonates so strongly within us?

More astoundingly is the recent discovery of a neural population specific to the perception of music as reported by MIT news video:

Despite the excitement surrounding this discovery, it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It isn’t clear whether we respond the way we do to music as a result of having a specific neural population to do so, or whether as a consequence to incorporating music into our lives we have evolved that ability. Equally so, the location of these neurons does not tell us anything more than that they exist…for now. But it is an important starting point necessary to aid this exploration.

Neuroaesthetics is novel area of neuroscience that aims to investigate the neurobiological mechanisms behind our response to art. I believe that we are well on our way to understanding why music is such an integral part of being human and I think we can only do so by increasing awareness of this field of neuroscience – a field I am eager to become a part of. The aim of my blog series is to discuss and ask questions about art and the brain with the ultimate goal of raising awareness, and more importantly interest, in such an exciting area of research. For those who are already intrigued take a look for yourself:

Stay tuned!


Society, A. Singing for the Brain – Alzheimer’s Society. [online]. Available from: [Accessed March 3, 2016].


Snyder, B. 2000. Music and memory. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


Trafton, A. 2015. Music in the brain. MIT News [online]. Available from: [Accessed February 16, 2016].

 Author: Tiffany Quinn

Editor: Molly Campbell


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