I frequently make the claim that “playing music engages the whole brain.” I do it intentionally, and I use that exact phrase for good reason.
First of all, it’s true. More on that in a minute.
I am directly responding to a common misunderstanding of how a human brain actually works, and specifically how it processes music. In a basic understanding of brain function, most of us remember what we learned in Biology class when we were told that there’s a visual cortex (the occipital lobe) that processes what your eyes see, the amygdala that provides your “fight or flight” reflex, the frontal lobe used for critical thinking, etc. So it stands to reason that if there’s a temporal lobe (auditory cortex) that processes what your ears hear, that must be where the “music center” is located, right?
Well, sort of.
Not to get lost in the weeds, but you know that age-old question: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Technically, no, it does not make a sound. On a technical level, the impact of the fall sends out shockwaves of pressurized air molecules. That’s it. If there is no mechanism (like an ear) for capturing and interpreting those waves of molecular movement, there is no “sound.” This may come across a little like naval-gazing mumbo jumbo or that we're just playing with semantics, but a “sound” does not exist outside the construct of your own mind. It takes a device to sense the changes in air pressure (your ear) and a device to interpret those changes (your brain) into something meaningful.
And that’s the kicker: assigning meaning.
The more accurate way to ask that question is this: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to interpret the waves of air molecules, has meaning been assigned to the temporary change in air pressure? Nope. Also, who talks like that?
Here’s where things get a little complicated. Let’s follow these "air pressure waves" as they hit the ear and are interpreted as a sound, and compare that to what we commonly think of as music. As I sit here typing (and listening), I can make out several noises. I can overhear voices in a phone conversation and the click-click of a computer keyboard. The hum of a computer tower. The engine noise of a car that just drove by outside. A chair squeaks.
All of these activities are physically moving air molecules in waves, and my ears are picking up the vibrations. Tiny hairs inside my ear vibrate in time with each pressured wave, sending those signals to my brain. They also vibrate with an intensity matching the power behind it and send those signals to my brain. My brain’s auditory cortex recognizes the time between each vibration (the frequency of the “sound”) and how much energy is behind each one (how strong the wave is, interpreted as the volume or loudness of the “sound”). It's also fascinating to note that the arrangement of hairs inside the ear follows the spectrum of perceivable frequencies, and the auditory cortex aligns with that arrangement. However, we still don’t have music. At this point, we don’t even have an interpreted “sound” yet, either.
The signals from the ear, now measured by the auditory cortex, need to mean something. This is where it gets tricky because this is where all those other areas of the brain come in. A loud, abrupt signal might be caught by the amygdala, so you jump in fear or run away in self-preservation. A signal you’ve heard before, perhaps a loved one’s voice, triggers memories stored in the hippocampus, and the “mental image” of their smiling face activates the occipital lobe.
Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this. All of these reactions you have are because of a sound, but none of those reactions occur, geographically speaking, from within the auditory cortex. We haven’t even heard music yet and we’ve already left the auditory cortex.
If I've got you properly confused, you're also now wondering, What is music, exactly? What do we mean when we say we hear music? I just listed a number of sounds that I am hearing, yet I wouldn't say that anything I just heard counts as music.
Speaking generally and loosely, music occurs when sounds are purposefully defined and arranged in a recognizable way (usually it's some kind of recognizable pattern). The sounds I've been hearing are happening independently and randomly and there doesn't seem to be any perceivable intent behind their creation. In other words, the "intent" behind their creation was an activity that coincidentally made a sound, but the activity did not happen for the purpose of creating sounds meant for me to hear. Further, to be music, these sounds have to take on certain characteristics that we ascribe to music, and we have to be able to notice them, recognize them, and assign meaning to them. Here are a few such characteristics: pitch, timbre, tempo, amplitude. Harmony, melody, rhythm, phrasing are important as well. We can play music vocabulary BINGO with these in future posts, but here's an example:
Pitch is the term that describes certain frequencies used in music. In other words, a sound at a frequency of 440 Hz might be called an "A" note. The vibration of 440 Hz is what's happening, but calling it an "A" is a name given (the meaning assigned) to that frequency. We just as easily could have called that pitch "Sandwich" and it would still be a vibration at 440 Hz. (I would like to see all guitarists now tune by demanding from each other, "Hey, give me a sandwich!") Actually, this already happens in music notation with the "accidentals" (the black keys on a piano). Bb and A# (said as, "B flat" and "A sharp") are the same piano key. You hear the same frequency, same pitch, but the notes are called different names. Ask your music theory teacher why that is; this blog post is long enough already.
So let’s listen to some music. Better yet, let’s play some music. I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, so here’s what happens in my brain when I pick up a guitar and play along with my favorite King’s X tune, “We Were Born To Be Loved” from Faith, Hope, Love.
Just thinking of the song triggers memories, since I’ve been listening to this album for over 25 years. Specifically, a mental image of my college dorm room where I learned to play this song on guitar appears in my mind. Hippocampus and occipital lobe, respectively.
Jerry Gaskill starts the song with a drum fill. My temporal lobe gets the message from my ears, and the left frontal cortex, left parietal cortex, and right cerebellum, do some complex calculations to measure the time between drum hits, helping my sense of rhythm so I come in at the right time. (Insert drummer jokes here.)
I start playing along, trying to match Ty Tabor’s guitar sound and style. My putamen kicks in to help coordinate the physical movements of my hands, as well as the cerebellum, which is also associated with muscle memory (this is, after all, the 10,000th time I’ve played this song). My corpus callosum is also getting a workout. It’s the area that coordinates the right and left hemispheres, and is quite useful when playing guitar (right-hand picking/strumming, left-hand fingering).
Doug’s vocal track starts the spoken word part and Wernicke’s area (that comprehends language) activates as I think about how he describes past experiences. Working again with my hippocampus and occipital lobe, I can visualize a young Doug experiencing the things he’s talking about.
Near the end of the song, the greatest riff in the history of rock music begins (NOT an understatement or biased in any way). My hypothalamus has probably locked in by now. It’s an area linked to nervous system activity and regulates heart rate and body temperature. It’s been documented that the body naturally matches heart rate to the music being played, so my heart rate is likely settling in near 92 bpm.
As the song comes to an end, the nucleus accumbens receives the neurotransmitter dopamine, and my brain gets the same pleasure/reward sensation that I would get from drugs like cocaine. Did I mention that the nucleus accumbens is related to addiction as well? Yeah, that’s right. Music is my drug. In an abstract sense, I just got high off an mp3. Before you recoil in horror or think me a heathen, realize the same thing happens when I play guitar in church on Sunday mornings. It’s a natural high that’s supposed to occur in the brain as a reward for good behavior. (If you recoiled in horror for a different reason - that I listened via mp3 and not vinyl - you likely live nearby in Portland, Oregon. Hello, neighbor!)
Finally, my frontal lobe takes over for a minute. The part of my brain used for critical thinking and decision-making performs some critical thinking and makes a swift decision. It sends a quick message to my cerebellum, causing my index finger to hit the “Repeat Song” button.
So, to circle back, is there a music center in the brain? Sure there is. Your entire brain is one big music center! My brain has decided it wants another workout. Catch ya next time!
Here's a great resource that visually outlines much of what I refer to in this article:
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