Resonant Brain: How you "feel" music

One good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain.  Bob Marley

Foot taps. Head nods. You might smile. Or Cry. You might get goose bumps. You might feel sadness, joy or even reverence. For a second, the face of someone you seldom think about flashes. You close your eyes to get closer. You sing along. Loudly. You feel a kinship with the person now staring from the adjoining car. Surely they approve. They do not. What on Earth is happening to you? Neurologically, you are having a strong emotional reaction to structured sounds. Simply put, you are enjoying music.

Emotion and music are inextricably linked. Every human society that existed has created it. The melodies begin to carve out emotional pathways in the brain around 5-months old, yet the reason for its grip on us is still mysterious. Recent scientific findings have shed some light on this incredible experience using functional neuroimaging (fMRI) that shows which areas of the brain light up when jamming to your favorite tune.

Let’s explore. I will pick “I’ve just seen a face” by the legendary Beatles. Feel free to insert any piece of music that evokes a strong emotional reaction. Press play.

What happens?

Hear it. Move. 

The sound enters my ears where highly developed structures called otolith organs respond to sound and vibration carry the information to subcortical parts of the brain responsible not only for audition but also movement. The reticular formation, vestibular (VN in picture below) and parabrachial nucleus are some of the oldest parts of the brain, giving credence to the view that music has been around as long as humans have. So, I do what all humans do when I hear the intro chords - I tap my fingers and feet.

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Feel it.

Next, the lyrics and sound combine and begin to change my mood. “I’ve just seen a face” speaks of the giddiness you feel when meeting someone you connect with. The sound features a fast tempo, high sound level and high pitch variability – which sound joyful – so I feel exactly that. The brain structure responsible? The amygdala. (AMYG in picture above). It is centrally connected to many computational hubs in the brain and is in a perfect position to not only regulate emotion but also integrate it with cognitive information. Music’s ability to regulate mood results from its similarity to spoken sound. Affective prosody (how loud and fast a sound is when someone is talking) exists in both speech and music and serves as an effective social communicator. That is to say, emotion and music are universally recognized because the brain understands them as a communication tool. A person who has never heard of the Beatles could tell you the song is happy. The corners of my mouth turn up, my breathing rate increases and I might even start sweating! This is called emotional contagion: music triggers physiological processes.Then I get tingles. The nucleus accumbens (NAc) is lighting up. Tingles or goose bumps can result from anything joyful - food, sex (primary rewards) even money and power (secondary rewards). Whether you are having an orgasm, eating chocolate or listening to an incredible piece of music – you are feeding your brain joy and getting rid of sorrow.

Remember it. 

The face of my first love flashes, his details becoming more focused with each bar of the chorus. The hippocampus (not shown) glows with activity, a structure responsible for learning and memory. The hippocampus also modulates the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. A link between lower cortisol levels and lower levels of emotional stress have been shown in several studies. In other words, the music puts me in a better mood and relaxes me. The sense of kinship I feel serenading the stranger in the adjoining car also comes from the hippocampus. The structure is abundant in oxytocin (the feel-good hormone) receptors that simulate a sense of social cohesion. Although my neighbor doesn’t feel so bonded to me, this probably served as an important adaptation in the evolution of humans.

Music can heal.

One more thing. Musical memory is separate from episodic [what happens to you] and semantic [facts] and could potentially be preserved in patients with Alzheimer's (think The Notebook). Given the mounting evidence that music can fundamentally change the brain, music therapy should be a legitimate avenue for patients with depression, anxiety and even schizophrenia. Research in this captivating area is currently underway. Moreover, before musical education is cut because of budgetary issues, someone should use their brain and think otherwise.

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ResearchBlogging.org Koelsch S (2014). Brain correlates of music-evoked emotions. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 15 (3), 170-80 PMID: 24552785
Koelsch S. (2014). Brain correlates of music-evoked emotions, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15 (3) 170-180. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nrn3666