A Crash Course on How Your Brain Processes Music

From actually entering your brain, to interacting with its different parts, it doesn’t have to be complicated to understand.

Listening to music is much different from listening to a speech or a conversation. Not just in terms of your emotional response, but also in terms of how your brain is processing what you’re hearing.

So, here’s a crash course to help you better understand how music is processed in the brain.

This crash course is broken into two sections:

  • Anatomy of the Ear
  • Music in the Brain
A detailed diagram of the ear.
A detailed diagram of the ear. Image courtesy of WebMD.

Anatomy of the Ear

Understanding the functions of different parts of the ear and how sound travels to the brain.

The ear is broken into three different parts. Simply enough, they are known as the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. Each part of the ear is comprised of additional, smaller parts, bones, and tubes and serves a distinct purpose in guiding the sound waves to the brain.

The most natural place to start is to examine how exactly the sound waves that carry music make it into the brain, which is the outer ear. The outer ear is the physical exterior to the ear, what is colloquially called the ear lobe, along with the section of the ear you insert a q-tip into. There are three parts to the outer ear -- the pinna, the external auditory canal, and the tympanic membrane.

The pinna is also known as the earlobe, and it consists of the entire exterior of the ear. The purpose of the pinna is to catch all of the soundwaves and direct them into the external auditory canal. The external auditory canal is the portion of your ear you stick the q-tip into. It’s main purpose is to concentrate the sound waves collected by the pinna and send them towards the tympanic membrane, which is also known as the eardrum. The tympanic membrane vibrates in response to the sound waves coming in.

The middle ear is located just beyond the eardrum and is made up of three tiny bones. These tiny bones interact with one another to amplify the vibrations from the tympanic membrane to send to the inner ear.

The major part of the inner ear that is involved in hearing is the cochlea, which is shaped like a snail. This may sound familiar if you are familiar with cochlear implants. The main role of the cochlea is to translate the vibrations from the middle ear into electrical signals. These electrical signals travel via neurons through the cochlear nerve system, which is also referred to as the auditory nerve.

A simple diagram of the exterior of the brain.
A simple diagram of the exterior of the brain. Image courtesy of Tim Vandevall.

Music in the Brain

When the music’s soundwaves make it into the brain, the music makes a different impact on each part of the brain it interacts with.

Now that it is clear how music makes its way to the brain, we can start unpacking how the brain processes the music. While each part of the brain specializes in different senses and behaviors, such as memory, sight, and emotions, there are actually several parts of the brain that have a strong connection to music.

The temporal lobe is the part of the brain that processes what you hear. It is located on the bottom half of the brain, just below your ears. The portion of the temporal lobe in the left hemisphere focuses on interpreting words and language, while the portion in the right hemisphere is more centered on the music and sounds. While music and plain speaking are primarily processed in the temporal lobe, music enacts the right brain much more than just speaking does.

The frontal lobe is another part of the brain that is heavily involved with the processing of music. While usually associated with where personality is located, the frontal lobe is home to thinking and decision making. At the forefront of the frontal lobe lies the prefrontal cortex, which is the major component in cognitive behavior and personality expression.

Research shows that the prefrontal cortex, and thus frontal lobe, works to process music and see if it  makes sense in terms of pitch and tone. It also creates expectations for the music, such as keeping a steady beat. This is why songs that contain key changes or beat drops are particularly enjoyable and stand out.

The hippocampus is another major site in the brain when processing music. The hippocampus is where memories are created within the brain, and it is also where a majority of memories are stored. The hippocampus pays particular attention to memories that evoke emotion. Since music is typically associated with some type of emotion, it is easiest for the hippocampus to retrieve memories of music.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that is associated with experiencing emotions. It is the center of the brain that responds to the music being heard and begins to experience the emotion that is being evoked by the song. This is why you might cry when listening to a sad song, or become happier when listening to an upbeat pop song.

The last major part of the brain that is heavily involved in music processing, is the cerebellum. Located at the back of the brain, just above the brainstem, the cerebellum is responsible for physical behaviors such as balance and coordination. It can be seen at work with a physical response to the rhythm of a song, such as the tapping of the foot. The cerebellum  is also highly valuable when actually performing music. When someone refers to muscle memory, it is located in the cerebellum and helps you to play instruments.

A detailed diagram of the interior of the brain.
A detailed diagram of the interior of the brain. Image courtesy of Ask a Biologist.

While it is a complicated and elaborate process, it isn’t too difficult to understand how exactly music enters the brain and how it works to process what you hear. Hopefully now you have a better understanding as to how your brain is working to process the music that you are hearing!

Dean Pinnell
Dean Pinnell is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh studying Communication and Fiction Writing.
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