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Music Brain: This Is Your Brain On Music

Music is an emotive language that moves us through time and space, sparking vivid memories of the past, pushing us to action in the present, and igniting thoughts for the future.

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Photo by Spencer Imbrockon Unsplash

What is music?

Music is something that we are all very familiar with. Most of us have grown up loving a certain genre of music, artist, or song.

We have devices that keep us connected to our favorite tracks while at work, exercising, relaxing, and celebrating. It can be used for meditation, contemplation, and solace. We turn to music to dance, unite with our peers, express gratitude, and appreciate beauty.

Music has a multitude of utilities. It is the reason why Daniel Levitin, a cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, and writer revealed the science behind this human obsession of ours in his book THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC.

So why do we love music so much? Why is so important to us as humans?

Let’s start with the definition of music.

What’s that sound?

Music is organized sound.

Music is sound that has some repetitive elements to it.

Construction workers could be making unorganized sounds while taking down the scaffold of a soon-to-be completed building. It might come across as noise. You might want to pull your hair out if you don’t have a way to block out the noise.

However, once these construction workers start making these sounds in a predictable and organized fashion, consciously or unconsciously, that noise suddenly becomes more appealing. Now it sounds like a beat.

You can easily pick out the rhythm.

Your reward centers in your brain spark off with every fulfilled expectation of the beat. You might find yourself singing a tune to the beat or struggling to freestyle your latest verses — okay, I’ll speak for myself.

Once sounds become perceived as organized, then they can be classified as music.

Compared to other animals, We — as humans, have a unique capacity to put the full puzzle of music together. That’s what makes it a very powerful tool.

Music is a ubiquitous part of our human experience that has numerous functions. It is a universal human art form.

It is hard to imagine a world and our existence as human beings without music.

So how do we perceive music?

Listen Here

As you hear my words in your head while you read along, let me walk you through how those notes make the appealing sonic composition of your favorite songs.

Music starts as just vibration of air molecules.

These vibrations move our eardrums, which send these vibrations through the middle ear, vibrating bones called ossicles. Ossicles in turn pass these vibrations to the inner ear, or cochlea. The cochlea has thousands of hair cells that change these vibrations to electrical signals that are sent to the brain through the hearing nerve. These signals are what is then perceived in our brain as a sound.

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The journey of sound to perception

Let’s break down music into its most basic components: rhythm, pitch, loudness, tempo, meter, melody, and harmony.

A repeating sound creates one of the most basic characteristics, called Rhythm.

  • Rhythm refers to the duration of a series of tones and how they are grouped together into repetitive units. The rhythm is what we count and tap our feet to when we hear a song.
  • When a sound repeats fast enough, we hear another attribute of music called Pitch.

Pitch is a psychological experience. It’s not something that is out there in the world. There isn’t a tangible thing that you can grasp and say, “Hey, this is pitch.”It is perceived in your mind.

  • Now, the relative position of different pitches played in a series is what forms a melody, the part of the music you sing along with.
  • Measured in decibels, loudness is related to how much energy is behind the air that’s displaced to make a sound.

Similar to pitch, loudness is a perceived attribute that is only computed in the mind of the person listening to music. I hope you are keeping up with the speed of my words because I’m about to talk about Tempo.

  • Measured in beats per minute (bpm), Tempo is how fast or slow the songs goes.
  • Timbre is what distinguishes one instrument from the other. It is the reason why you can tell the difference between a saxophone and a piano playing the same note.
  • Meter refers to how notes are grouped across time.
  • Harmony is the voicing of parallel melodies to the primary melody.

All these attributes, from Pitch to Harmony, are distinct and are in a constant playful relationship in your best songs.

Don’t worry — you don’t have to remember them all. It has been ingrained in your mind already over the years. You don’t need to memorize each attribute; you already know it by heart.

The right combination of all these elements gives a song what is called the “gestalt effect.”

Gestalt means a unified whole form, a concept developed by gestalt psychologists that’s applicable to both artistic and non-artistic objects. The view of the gestaltist is that the whole is more than the sum of its individual parts.

Each song has a gestalt effect.

When you hear your favorite songs, your brain has registered each quality of the song and combined it into a unique sonic composition that would be incomplete if one of the elements were missing or combined in a different way.

Music we like is supposed to fulfill expectations with brief deviations so as not to sound too repetitive.

Humans unite

Our perception of music is an ability that is unique to us.

Our reptilian brain (brain stem and cerebellum) help us create the necessary patterns to walk, an attribute we share with a lot of primates. But our ability to predict (Beats per minute) BPM, to tap along to the rhythm, is rare.

Tapping our feet to the rhythm uses connections in the brain that are very rare in the animal world.

Some animals have the ability to perceive certain qualities of music but not all that we do.

Combined with our ability of memory and language, only humans can put the entire puzzle and symphony of music together.

Music is such a unique phenomenon to us similar to our ability to generate specific thought. It also has an interesting relationship with our brains and hearts.

Music and the brain: Movement, memory, and emotions

There are one hundred billion neurons in our brains, and they all have multiple connections with one another, creating the endless possibilities of connections.

The cerebellum is the part of the brain involved closely with timing and with coordinating movements of the body. Although it weighs only 10 percent as much as the rest of the brain, it contains 50 to 80 percent of the total number of neurons.

The function of this oldest part of the brain is something that is crucial to music: timing. From walking to running to any form of body coordination, we require rhythm and a good sense of timing in all our daily activities.

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Different parts of our brains being stimulated by the music we listen to

We evolved to make music that is in touch with our time.

Every time the rhythm matches our expectations, we get a reward that keeps us seeking that time-match that makes synchronized beats so pleasing.

It’s not all about coordinated movements — the cerebellum also has a lot of neuron connections with the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories are stored.

It also contains massive connections to emotional centers of the brain: the amygdala, which is involved in remembering emotional events, and the frontal lobe, the part of the brain involved in planning and impulse control.

This auditory experience called music can really move us as a human being, both physically and emotionally, while sparking memories.

“The story of your brain on music,” according to Daniel Levitin, “is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the brain and with regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the brain and the frontal lobes behind the eyes. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives.”

Music is an emotive language that moves us through time and space, sparking vivid memories of the past, pushing us to action in the present, and igniting thoughts for the future.

Why we like what we like

What most of us turn to music for is an emotional experience.

Fun Fact:

Do you know why you like music from your teenage years?

Why is it that we are sometimes resistant to new forms of music as we get older?

We like what we like for a reason. We tend to stick to musical preferences that we develop in our teenage years. That’s because those years were emotionally charged and an intense time of self-discovery. We tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to tag the memories as something important.

Most of us are expert music listeners by age six, when we have incorporated the grammar of our musical culture into a mental schema that allows us to form musical expectations.

The heart of our music experience is the transference of feelings and meaning — meaning that accumulates based on the scale system of our culture built over centuries.

Music: Do we need it?

There are different reasons why we have evolved to utilize music.

The first argument is that music evolved and continues to function as a courtship display, mostly broadcast by young males to attract females. Another possibility is that evolution selected creativity in general as a marker of sexual fitness.

The second argument is that collective music making may encourage social cohesion — humans are social animals, and music may have historically served to promote feelings of group togetherness and synchrony.

A third argument in favor of music’s primacy in human evolution is that music evolved because it promoted cognitive development.

Whether first, second, or third argument, music cuts across our human experience.

It moves our minds, body, and heart. It is the best language for the transference of feelings. We can use it to build empathy, supercharge empowerment, and galvanize togetherness.

Because it is so commonplace and most of us have had music around us like a fish has water, it is easy to forget we have this superpower of musicality that we can use to learn, feel, remember, and connect.

Music has the power, universally, to make us learn something really important about what it is to be human.

We can use that to radically solve human-centered problems in our world.

Here are a few article on how music can be used to:

Boost Consciousness

Find Purpose


You can find out more about the effects of music on your brain and how it can catalysize change in my book — PRESS PLAY: Music As a Catalyst For Change

Who is Nifemi?

Hey I’m Nifemi of NapoRepublic

I help busy people fit in a creative practice to bring to bring order to their reality and help them live a more meaningful life through writing and reflection.

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Know thyself, build a second brain, and unleash your creativity with writing. All in one journaling, note-taking, and dots-connection method that fits into your busy life.