Thursday, January 1, 2009

Music and the Brain

Professor Daniel Levitin
Science interviews February 2008
The Naked Scientists: Science Radio & Science Podcasts


Writer Daniel Levitin was interviewed about why music can make us happy or drive us crazy. He talked about what effect music has on the brain.

Levitin gives a thumbnail sketch of the basics of how and where the brain processes music as sound. The auditory cortex is the first place that music is processed followed by the different parts of the brain where pitch, rhythm, timbre, melody and harmony are analyzed. The frontal lobes try to predict what will come next. That is what causes us to be pleasantly surprised at what does or does not follow. The visual cortex can be activated if a listener is imagining movement or watching a performer's movement.

He talks about the ability of the brain to fill in the blanks in music. We may not completely remember all the lyrics or the whole melody but our brains can come up with probable or plausible links to what we do remember.

Music can make us feel good, he says, because, as it does when other pleasurable things happen, a network of neurons fire in the limbic system changing the chemical makeup of the brain. Likewise, if a person is listening to music they don't like, the neurotransmitter dopamine is not released into the brain and the amygdala, or the centre of the brain that governs fear or flight, is activated. People's reactions to music they don't like can be quite severe and be manifested in either agitation or anger, for example.

If music is too simple, too predictable, we likely will become tired of it quickly whereas, something more complex that may we may not care for upon first listening, may become pleasurable to listen to as the brain begins to understand the structure of the music.

Levitin concludes by responding to the question of whether listening to classical music makes you smarter by saying there is no evidence to suggest that brain regions are engaged in a different way when listening to classical music than when listening to any other genre of music that one may prefer.


Levitin is an engaging speaker who is able to communicate the basics of how the brain processes music in intelligible terms to the lay listener. This interview served as a good review and reinforcement for me of some of the things we have talked about in class this term. I like the thought that, with repeated listening, our brains can learn to make sense of and begin to enjoy the unfamiliar, be it difficult classical repertoire or some kind of popular music.

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