Public Media Arts Hub

Why music has such profound effects on the brain


Hari Sreenivasan: Have you ever wondered why you sometimes get a tingling feeling when you hear a certain piece of music? We did, and we thought we could ask a musician for the answer or we could ask a neuroscientist. But then we decided, why not ask someone who is both. We found one in Indre Viskontas, who is a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the author of how music can make you better.

Indre Viskontas: I'm Indre Viskontas. I'm an opera singer and a cognitive neuroscientist. So I'm really interested in how the brain changes with experience or with learning, especially when it comes to music. Music can make us better in terms of healing our bodies, in terms of exercising better. Even rewiring our brains after an injury.

Indre Viskontas: So if I had to sum up the brain in one sentence and what it's really good at, I would say it's really good at predicting the future. We are essentially pattern-recognizing machines. Every great musician knows that a great performance involves building up tension to an eventual release. And that's because that taps into our pattern recognition apparatus in the brain. Our brain is trying to figure out what's going to happen next. So often, we love music that has a predictable pattern, maybe that we've heard before, but that either delays that release of tension like Barber's Adagio for Strings. You know the melody just weaves around the final climax over and over and over again.

Indre Viskontas: Or, where it surprises us. We think the melody is going to go in one direction and then it kind of goes in a different direction. Bohemian Rhapsody is a great example where we have one expectation of a result and then it changes. And it changes drastically. And that's one of the reasons people love that song. We see this kind of build up of the expectation of reward happening in our reward system in the brain, with the neurotransmitter release, etc. And then when we actually get to the climax of the piece, we see this release of the pleasure chemical dopamine, for example, in the nucleus accumbens - the part of the brain that is involved in liking something.

Indre Viskontas: So, earworms are a term that we use for songs that get stuck in our heads. The technical scientific term is "stuck song syndrome" or "involuntary musical imagery." And essentially it happens often when we're not kind of thinking about it. But if I tell you the name of a couple of songs that often does it, like Who Let The Dogs Out. Or Bad Romance by Lady Gaga, rah rah, ah ha ha. You know, you've got it already probably in your head. Or if you're a parent, Baby Shark. My apologies.

Indre Viskontas: These are songs, these are melodies that are really catchy. They're not too simple, but they're not too complicated either. And often they don't have a clear ending, or at least we don't remember how they end. What's more memorable is the actual melody but not how it ends. So if you're trying to get the earworm out of your ear, one strategy is to sing it in your head as vividly as possible until you get to the end. And even if you don't remember the end, make it up.

Indre Viskontas: So both musicians and music researchers know that we don't see the rhythm, we feel the beat. The parts of our brain that are engaged in beat processing are the same parts of our brain that are engaged in motor planning and motor actions, right. So we actually feel it within our bodies and in fact there are a bunch of our biological rhythms that in train to the rhythm of different beats. So, for example, we can see this in our brain waves, we can see it in our heart rates, in our pulse, in our breathing. We tend to sync up with the beat, it actually does sort of trigger the parts of your brain that are involved in movement.

Indre Viskontas: Listening to calm music when you are anxious can also lower your heart rate, deepen your breathing, because now all of a sudden your brain is trying to sync up with the music and if the music has a slower pulse, then that slows down these other autonomic parts of your nervous system. So that's why music can be very calming, and in fact, it's surprising that you can listen to music before surgery and actually need less sedative. And we can see levels of the cortisol hormone that decrease when people are listening to music, so we know they're less stressed and we need you know fewer sedative drugs in those kinds of situations.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.