Effect of Music on the Brain

Psychologist Lauren Stewart on the musical perception, the emotional effects of listening to music and how can people with congenital amusia appreciate music

videos | November 6, 2020

I think the first thing to say is that there’s no single area in the brain for music. We know this because we can have a look at patients who have suffered musical impairments following stroke, for instance. What we see is remarkably different presentations depending on where the stroke has damaged the brain. You may find a patient who has lost the ability to perceive timbre in music. This means that they cannot distinguish between the sound of a flute and the sound of a trumpet, for instance, but in all other aspects, their musical perception might be fine. they can still perceive and recognize familiar melodies etc, but they might have this specific difficulty. On the other hand, you might have people who have got problems with rhythm but not pitch or vice versa.

So, we know we can have a look at how musical perception breaks down in these cases of brain damage, mostly following a stroke. We can see that the picture is rather complex and that music is essentially a symphony of different components all coming together at once, and these different aspects of musical perception are dealt with by different aspects of the brain. That’s only even thinking about the perception of music, so the perception of timbre, of pitch, of rhythm, of harmony: all of these aspects of musical perception rely on rather distinct parts of the brain.

Then, we can think about the emotional effects of listening to music, and we know that these areas involved in this emotional experience of music are, again, different from the areas involved in the perception of music. In a very nice study by Canadian researchers Blood and Zatorre, they asked what was going on in the brains of people who were having musical shivers down the spine, this experience of having a physiological sort of transformation when you normally hear a particular passage in a particular piece. It’s very idiosyncratic, so the piece that causes the shiver down my spine will be different from the piece that triggers a similar thing for you.

This research has made use of this in a very clever way because they looked at the brain response when people were experiencing their shivers down the spine. They know it because people could report it after the scanning part. They compared the brain activation in these situations versus when people were listening to a piece of music that didn’t elicit shivers down the spine. But the very clever part of the experiment was that one person’s trigger was another person’s control music. This means that all of the pieces were present in both the experimental shivers condition and the control condition, but by sort of looking at which participants were experiencing the shiver, they could quite neatly compare what the brain is doing in this situation versus when it’s not experiencing this shiver.

What they found was that this experience seems to hijack the brain’s general pleasure-related circuitry, areas like the amygdala, the insula and the thalamus, which are areas that we know to be very responsive to other biologically adaptive rewards like eating and sexual behaviour as well. This is really like the ‘sex, drugs and rock-n-roll’ circuitry of the brain if you like.

But even on unpicking the brain’s response to musical pleasure and reward, it’s still quite a complicated story because there are aspects of the brain that are involved when we are anticipating something happening in the music, and there are also other parts of the brain that are involved when the rewarding aspect of the music is delivered if you like, so there’s kind of cycles of activity with different brain areas being involved in the different stages of anticipation and reward.

In fact, one of the theories regarding why we like to listen to music has to do with the rewarding aspects of the musical listening experience. Music offers an opportunity to anticipate what will come next. We know that the brain is like a very good prediction machine. Our brains must make predictions about events that are going to happen in the world because by being able to predict what’s going to happen next, we can prepare for it, and that’s an important part of evolutionary fitness: being able to prepare and adapt to things that can happen to us.

So why do we derive such pleasure from music? This is quite a useless stimulus in a way; it’s not really anything to do with survival. An interesting theory suggests that actually, because of the complexity and the structure involved in music, there are ample opportunities for our brain prediction machinery to get to work, so it’s a bit like having a massive cerebral workout when we listen to music because we can always work out where is the music going to go, am I surprised by what’s happened in the music? There are many different levels on which we can form anticipations about what’s going to happen next. Of course, we’re not doing this for any survival purpose, but the argument goes that because we are, by nature a species that likes to make predictions, we can’t help but do this. Music is a super stimulus that allows us to make predictions. Of course, when we’re accurate in our predictions, that can be rewarding. That’s essentially a part of why we like to listen to music.

There are many open questions about the effects of music on the brain. Currently, I’m quite interested in the role of music in modulating mood and how it can be an effective tool for mental health conditions or for motivating people to do rehabilitation after a stroke, for instance. So, I’m picking the relationship between music, motivation and movement. It’s an important area for me.

In my past research, I’ve also been interested in thinking about how people who had perceptual difficulties with music, such as congenital amusia, can nevertheless, in some cases, still appreciate music. That’s quite an interesting observation because you might think that you can only appreciate music and have an emotional response to it if you were able to perceive and encode music the way it was intended as the composer wrote it. If there are people who can’t tell one tune from another or seem to have difficulties, at least on the standardized tests that we’ve been using, seem to reveal quite striking perceptual difficulties with music, it would be logical to think: I’m sure these people are not able to get very much out of music, it probably just sounds like noise to them.

But in fact, what we found when we asked people about their uses of music in everyday life as well as the psychological reasons for which they used music was that at least a third of our sample of participants with congenital amusia who used music in everyday life just as much as the people without amusia for similar psychological functions. So it’s telling us that within that group of people who do have genuine perceptual difficulties, there are some people who can somehow nevertheless get something from the music listening experience. That’s an interesting observation because it shows you that perception and appreciation can dissociate, and they are not necessarily always intimately linked.

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Professor of Psychology — Goldsmiths, University of London
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