Why Does our Brain Love Music?

Why Does our Brain Love Music?
Ever wondered why music has such a special effect? The key lies in our amazing brains -says Juliet Russell.

There are lots of theories as to why we evolved to be such musical creatures: sexual attraction, building social ties, bonding mothers with their babies and even to help us work together.

Even if we don’t know why, with developments in brain imaging and neuroscience, we can see how music affects our brain and it’s really quite incredible.

Feeling Good

When listening to music, our brain starts to anticipate what’s coming up and more often than not, this anticipation is rewarded. When we anticipate music our brain starts to release dopamine – a chemical involved in motivation and reward. Interestingly, dopamine is released at the anticipatory point and not the reward. This same process is linked to chills that some people feel when listening to a particular song.

When listening to music, our brain starts to anticipate what’s coming up and more often than not, this anticipation is rewarded

It’s Multi-sensory

Listening to music activates lots of different parts of our brain simultaneously – in all three evolutionary layers of the brain – the reptilian, limbic and neocortex. Unsurprisingly our auditory cortex responds to music, as do the motor and sensory cortex, our visual cortex and our prefrontal cortex. This means we have a multiple sensory response to music. Our personal preferences and cultural references also come into play. Watch this video of Oliver Sachs and his brain choosing between Bach and Beethoven. It’s great for seeing how much of our brain is involved when we are really enjoying listening.

Music and Memory

…are entwined in so many ways. If you want to remember a list of items, scientists have found that you will find it much easier if you set it to the melody of a familiar song. We all have songs that jolt us back in time – to a significant place or time in our lives, to certain friends or a particular state of mind. Even when our memories are under attack, musical appreciation and musical aptitude are two of the last remaining abilities in people with dementia.


Fifteen minutes after participants listened to their favourite song, their brains flooded with dopamine

On Repeat

Repetition is a feature of music globally. Our brain likes repeated phrases, returning to phrases and to listen to certain songs over and over again. (It also likes variation and unfamiliar developments from familiar templates – our brains love lots of different aspects of music). Tests by neuroscientists Valorie Salimpoor and Robert Zatorre at McGill University showed that fifteen minutes after participants listened to their favourite song, their brains flooded with dopamine.

We Love to Synchronize

Our brain likes rhythm and many of us physicalise music when listening; by nodding our heads, tapping our feet, drumming our fingers, even unconsciously. The motor cortex and cerebellum are both linked to this and the cerebellum also relates to music and emotion (with other parts of the brain). We also like to move together – to synchronise – which is why music and dancing are such an intrinsic part of our social celebrations

If you want to know more about why our brain loves music, I recommend these books:

  • Victoria Williamson – You are the Music
  • Daniel Levitin – This is your Brain on Music
  • Daniel Levetin – The World in Six Songs
  • Oliver Sachs – Musicophilia

– Juliet

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Noah Derksen Noah Derksen - You Will Be Found

I’m a big fan of hearing singers’ original songs so thank you for this and for a very professionally delivered performance and video. You have a lovely tone – very contemporary and there’s a warmth there that makes your voice sound instantly familiar on first listen. I like the higher note that you hit in the chorus and this is a really nice part of you voice, which you use to enhance the dynamic. I like how you use this same quality later to build further. Over all this is an accomplished, professional performance and I really enjoyed it.

Why I chose Noah Derksen as a Finalist

I am choosing Noah to move onto the VoiceCouncil competition finals because of their distinctive, contemporary sound and original song.

November’s Vocal Coach in Residence: Juliet Russell

Juliet Russell has completed a unique tour which sees her joining forces with a different community choir in locations across Britain. Hundreds of voices performed Juliet Russell’s new album, Earth Meets Sky, creating a series of unique live performances. These have been recorded, filmed, and broadcast throughout the tour on social media. Visit her Website for more information.