Cognitive Neuroscience

Is the brain hardwired to enjoy music?
Answered by Susan Sherwood and Discovery Channel
  • Susan Sherwood

    Susan Sherwood

  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. Certainly there is significant evidence that humans have a genetic predisposition to respond to music, even prior to birth. Prenatal researchers have found that fetuses react to music they have heard before -- they seem to remember it. Music with a slow tempo appears soothing to them, because fetal movement diminishes. At quicker tempos fetal movement accelerates. These effects may be caused more by rhythm than melody, because the insulating embryonic sac reduces the decibel level that reaches the fetus. 

    Obviously, appreciation for music doesn't stop in utero. It doesn't seem to stop anywhere: Music is universal to all human cultures. There are emotional aspects of music, such as happiness, sadness, and fear that are recognized irrespective of culture. In a study published in 2009, an international research team presented examples of Western music to an African population (the Mafa) unfamiliar with that style. A significant number of listeners were able to identify the intended emotional content of the Western melodies, despite the fact that it was far different from their own music. Meanwhile, Westerners presented with both Mafa music and dissonant variations preferred the less-dissonant original. This experiment was reversed (Mafas listening to Western tunes and adaptations) with the same results. This study suggests that the amount of dissonance within music universally affects opinions concerning its appeal.

    Why the universal attraction? Scientists have found that listening to music causes endorphins to be released in the brain, though the amount varies for each individual. Endorphins  (neurotransmitters manufactured within the brain) are involved in many emotional reactions, often producing feelings of elation similar to the effects of opiates. Thus, music, no matter the genre, "rewards" listeners with a boost of feel-good chemicals.

    Music can have other physical effects. Before going into surgery, patients can use music to calm themselves; they feel less stressed and worried.  After surgery, patients can listen to music to reduce the amount of pain medication needed. Music can cause significant beneficial physiological changes, within any culture, from an extraordinarily early age. You can call it "hardwired," or genetically predisposed, or innate, inborn, natural, intrinsic, native, instinctive or inherent, but music is a part of us.

    Sheet music detail
    (Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Thinkstock)

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  2. There's no one "music center" in the brain; rather, there are several areas in the brain that light up when we hear a piece of music. Neuroscientists have investigated what happens when babies listen to music, and they've found that by the age of 5 months, babies can differentiate happy songs from sad songs. In other studies, scientists have drawn a connection between happy songs and positive physical outcomes; for example, hospitalized patients who have music therapy have lower levels of anxiety and depression than patients who undergo other types of therapy, perhaps indicating that music is a natural balm for the brain and the body. As we age, music causes the areas of the brain associated with long-term memory to light up. If you hear the song that was playing during your first slow dance, for example, you may be immediately transported back to that day, even if you're suffering from a type of dementia that makes it difficult to remember what you did the day before.

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