For years it was thought that music must activate one particular area of the brain. However, after recent studies and research, it was proven that music actually engages with multiple areas of the brain (Weinberger). Listening to music is one of the only activities that uses many parts of the brain at once. The areas of the brain that are used when listening to or playing music can vary depending on the person’s past experience, musical background, and general knowledge about music.
The Pathway of Sound
Musical tones are processed first in the inner ear, the cochlea in particular. From the cochlea, the sounds are transmitted along fibers of the auditory nerve to the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe (Weinberger). Below is a picture of the auditory cortex in the brain. In the auditory cortex, there are cells that only respond to specific frequencies of sound. The patterns and intensity of the activity in these cells is not always the same for each frequency. It depends on the melody of the song and the tones before and after it (Weinberger). In other words, one song may cause different brain activity than another song due to factors such as varying tone, loudness, and melody.
Different elements of music activate different areas of the brain. A few important examples of these elements of music are listed below.
Rhythm is defined as the lengths and spacing between notes. There have been disagreements about which hemisphere of the brain is affected by rhythm because different rhythmic patterns and stimuli activate different parts of the brain (Weinberger). For example, short and staccato rhythms excite the left temporal lobe more than the right.
Harmony is defined as two or more tones being played simultaneously. The auditory regions of the right temporal lobe are used when dealing with matters of harmony in music (Weinberger).
Timbre is defined as the difference in the sound between two instruments playing the same tone. When differentiating between the timbres of different instruments, the right temporal lobe is used once again (Weinberger).
Experience Makes a Difference
Musical training or lessons can change and determine the brain’s response to a song. Brain cells respond most strongly to tones that are important or familiar to the person. After hours of practicing a song, the auditory cortex adjusts to that specific stimuli. The auditory cortex of a musician is 130% larger than a non-musician (Weinberger). The more training one has, the more developed his or her auditory cortex.
Why It Matters
Because of the complexity of the responses of the brain, different types of music can be used to accomplish different tasks or elicit various emotions. Please see Physical and Emotional Responses to Music to learn more about these responses.