What happens when you listen to a song?

This is your brain on music.

If you ever had the funny fortune of running into me on the road, while driving, it’d probably be a sight to behold. It’s only recently I’ve toned it down a notch but here’s the picture you’d see:


Head bobbing,

Lips moving,

Hands swaying,

Shoulders sliding,

You see, I’m almost always jamming to music (at safe levels, of course). It’s something I often look forward to on my drives to and fro work. It’s why I’ve carefully curated playlists that fit each mood, especially for days when I’m still drowsy and would rather be in bed — those are the “Hey Siri, play Upbeat playlist” days.

However, this hadn’t always been the case. Listening to music in the mornings was a deliberate addition to my morning routine at a particularly difficult time in my life.

So, what exactly does music do to the brain?

Let’s dive into what really happens in the brain. It’s truly incredible.

Music to the ears (& brain)

Music goes into the body the same way any other sound does — through the ears. The biological process of hearing is a different concept altogether so let’s explore its actual arrival at the brain.

Sound, music or otherwise, involves a similar pathway:

But what makes music different from every other form of sound?

I mean, it’s clear to us that noise is different from our favourite jam. There’s something about it.

And then there’s those chills

In 2001, a study via a functional brain scan revealed the parts of the brain involved in the goosebumps we sometimes experience. They found areas such as the nucleus accumbens (informally known as the “pleasure centre”) the thalamus, and anterior cingulate (amongst others) to be more active during a chill reaction.

But central to this is our good ol’ friend — dopamine (previously mentioned here). In fact, its release is an almost-immediate response. It’s why listening to good music can mimic other pleasurable and/or addictive activities such as gambling or coitus.

🧠 Fun fact: higher oxytocin (“the bonding hormone”) levels were found when people sing together.

It’s also proposed that music is mostly dominated by the right side of the brain hemisphere, as opposed to language, for example, which is on the left. That notwithstanding, listening to music also lights up these areas.

No wonder music is a universal language.

Music in Everyday Life

Speaking of language, music is similarly a useful daily tool.

Apart from boosting our moods and reducing stress, music has more recently (like this century-level recent) proven useful as therapy — just like medications in treatment.

For example, in the treatment of patients with progressively-worsening conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, music therapy has shown promise.

“Usually in the late stages, Alzheimer’s patients are unresponsive. But once you put in the headphones that play [their favorite] music, their eyes light up. They start moving and sometimes singing. The effect lasts maybe 10 minutes or so even after you turn off the music.” — Prof. Kiminobu Sugaya

Music has also been found helpful in the development of children. Apart from its soothing effects to babies as early as while in the third trimester, the brain development of children exposed to music is significant.

This posed a new question —  what is the evolutionary purpose of music?

From Darwin’s proposition of the necessity of music (and dancing) for mating to more recent scientific evidence of its use in enhancing memory, there are differing opinions.

One thing’s for certain though:

Life wouldn’t be the same without music.

What else can tap into our souls so deeply via a stranger we might never meet?

What else can doh ray mi fah soh into our innermost thoughts and reflect a shared humanity?

Make us feel emotions that are there, yet also are not, making us desperate to relate?

Make the curves and edges of the human body sway?

Bring friends and strangers alike, together?


🔌 Recommendation of the week!

I recently got into Netflix and was in the mood for something not steeped in reality. I promise I’m not an escapist or anything (or am I?). Binge-watching Merlin has been that refreshing escape for me. This week’s recommendation is the legend of King Arthur, told by one of my favourite, witty podcasts on storytelling Myths & Legends.