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How Does Music Affect the Brain?

Updated on June 18, 2012

Note: This is part one of a series of articles that examine the relationship between music and the brain by integrating scholarly work on the philosophy of music with research in the psychology of emotion and intelligence. Part one summarizes the idea and the approach. All parts can be read independently, though they may make references to other parts. Please click here for an overall abstract and links to the other articles in the series.

Why Study Music?

Why might the study of music be worthy of holding a central place in the activity of human life? Many have tried to answer this question, both formally and informally, and nearly everyone has an opinion on the subject. Some believe music to be of lasting value, and others see it as little more than an entertaining way to pass the time—hardly worthy of being recognized as important to the central business of living. This article series contends that music is a fundamental medium of human thought that can contribute significantly to the development of a centered and focused intelligence and personality. The benefits of music study come as a result of the processes involved in knowingly and purposefully participating in the musical activities of composing, improvising, performing and listening.


This suggestion is by no means new and has been made and supported by numerous people before me, coming mostly from the field of philosophy. Scholars such as John Dewey, Nelson Goodman, Stephen C. Pepper and Susanne K. Langer have taken a deep philosophical look at the nature of art in general, which frequently applies directly to music as a form of artistic activity.[1] Through their work they have helped to provide an explanation of what art is as a human activity and some of the mental processes by which art is created. Other scholars such as Wilson Coker, Gordon Epperson, Bertram Jessup, Melvin Rader, Leonard B. Meyer and Roger Sessions have taken a closer philosophical look specifically at music.[2] Their work describes the nature of music as an art form and the processes that are involved in its creation and appreciation. Finally, scholars such as Bennett Reimer and David J. Elliott have considered the philosophy of music from an educational perspective, thereby taking a particular interest in the cultivation of the intellectual processes that are involved in its creation and understanding.[3] Collectively, these scholars have provided a solid philosophical foundation for the understanding of music as an art form and as a form of human activity.


Is There Objective Evidence & Research?

Their theories provide a number of arguments for the importance of music in human life, however, they come from a philosophical perspective, and, therefore, have only limited empirical justification. For this reason, there has been a great effort in recent years to develop studies that more objectively demonstrate the benefits of music. Indeed, an entire collection of such studies can be found in the book Spin-Offs: The Extra-Musical Advantages of a Musical Education, by Robert Cutietta, Donald L. Hamann and Linda Miller.[4] Studies such as these suggest that music may be able to raise SAT scores, improve one’s reading ability, improve various aspects of mathematical reasoning and enhance one’s social intelligence. Most of these studies, however, are focused on demonstrating how music is capable of improving reasoning in other areas, not on providing theoretical explanations for why these improvements might occur. One notable exception to this is the work of Frances H. Rauscher who, through his research, suggests a very concrete neurological reason for the improvement of spatial-temporal reasoning through musical activity. [5] This work is currently being expanded by the music-related research of The Neurosciences Institute.

A Bridge Between Philosophy & Science

Unfortunately, there is very little connection between the work of the music philosophers who provide an explanation of the processes of musical activity and this more objective research being done on the extra-musical advantages of music study and their physiological foundations. Recent work in a seemingly unrelated field, however, may provide a bridge between the two, allowing for the establishment of an empirically sound foundation for exploring the benefits of musical study from a broader perspective.

Thinking | Source

Research on the psychology of emotion and intelligence by scholars such as Howard Gardner, Robert Sternberg, Max Wertheimer, Jacques Hadamard, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Daniel Goleman, Keith Oatley, Jennifer M. Jenkins, P.N. Johnson-Laird, John D. Mayer, and Peter Salovey has helped significantly to clarify the nature of the human thought process, the nature of intelligent behavior and the involvement of the emotions in human mental life.[6] Their work has served to expand the notion of what is involved in the thinking process beyond the realm of rational conscious thought into the world of emotion, intuition, and other non-linguistic aspects. Their studies are heavily based on empirical psychological research and are, therefore, set on a solidly objective foundation.

My Daughter's Artwork
My Daughter's Artwork | Source
Abstract by wayseeker
Abstract by wayseeker | Source

New Possibilities for Understanding

Over the course of this series, I work to synthesize these psychological theories and the insights they provide with the insights of music philosophy. Seymour Sarason, in his book, The Challenge of Art to Psychology, suggests that art “challenges the ways in which psychology conceives of human potential.”[7] What I have attempted to do is explore just how it is that music challenges the way that psychology has viewed human potential and consider what insights the new developments in psychological research can provide for understanding music. So far as I have been able to determine, this particular approach to justifying and understanding the value of music in human life is new and my theoretical study reveals numerous connections that exist between the work of psychologists on the nature of thought and emotion and the work of philosophers on the nature of music.

As a final comment, my highest hope for this work is that it should lead more people to participate in musical activity with a deeper appreciation for its value. With this in mind, I have attempted to make this thesis accessible to those who are not necessarily well-acquainted with music or its study. This thesis, of necessity, goes fairly deeply into various aspects of philosophical and psychological theory, but avoids the use of technical terms when possible and provides a full explanation of those which will help to clarify understanding.

In Part II of this series, I will turn to the exploration of music and why it is that, as Bennett Reimer suggests in his book, A Philosophy of Music Education: “music and the other arts are a basic way that humans know themselves and their world; they are a basic mode of cognition.”[8]

End Notes:

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[1] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Minton, Balch & Comp, 1934); Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach To A Theory of Symbols (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1976); Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1942); Stephen C. Pepper, The Work of Art (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1955).

[2] Wilson Coker, Music & Meaning: A Theoretical Introduction to Musical Aesthetics (New York: The Free Press, 1972); Gordon Epperson, The Musical Symbol (Aimes, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1967); Bertram Jessup and Melvin Rader, Art And Human Values (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice–Hall, Inc., 1976); Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1956); Roger Sessions, The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener (New York: Atheneum, 1950).

[3] David J. Elliott, Music Matters (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Bennett Reimer, A Philosophy of Music Education (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1970).

[4] Robert Cutietta, Donald L. Hamann, and Linda Miller Walker, Spin-Offs: The Extra-Musical Advantages of a Musical Education (Elkhart, Indiana: United Musical Instruments U.S.A., Inc., 1995).

[5] Frances H. Rauscher, “A Cognitive Basis for the Facilitation of Spatial–Temporal Cognition Through Music Instruction,” in Ithaca Conference ‘96: Music as Intelligence: A Sorcebook, Verna Brummett ed. (Ithaca, New York: Ithaca College, 1997).

[6] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York, New York: Harper and Row, 1990); Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind (New York, New York: BasicBooks, 1983), and The Unschooled Mind (New York: BasicBooks, 1991); Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York, New York: Bantam Books, 1995); Jacques Hadamard, The Mathematician’s Mind: The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field with a preface by P. N. Johnson-Laird (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1945); P.N. Johnson–Laird and Keith Oatley, “Basic Emotions, Rationality, and Folk Theory,” in Basic Emotions, Nancy L. Stein and Keith Oatley eds. (East Sussex, United Kingdom: Lawrence Erlebaum Associates Ltd., 1992); John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, “Emotional Intelligence,” Imagination, Cognition, and Personality 9 (1990) : 185-211; Keith Oatley and Jennifer M. Jenkins, Understanding Emotions (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc, 1996); Robert J. Sternberg, Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of human intelligence (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Max Wertheimer, Productive Thinking (New York: Harper and Row, 1945).

[7] Seymour B. Sarason, The Challenge of Art to Psychology (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1990), 82.

[8] Reimer, 11.

Series Abstract

Important efforts in recent musical research have been devoted to exploring how music affects intellectual processing, the emotions and personality. Most of these efforts have been focused on exploring music’s effect on the neurology of the brain and its possible contributions to development in other non-musical domains such as language or mathematics. Much of this research is, by necessity, very specific and of a limited focus. A broader understanding of the positive results of music study can now be established, however, by synthesizing the theories of musical meaning provided by music philosophy and new psychological research on the nature of intelligence and emotion. This synthesis reveals that studying music has demonstrable holistic benefits on cognitive processing, emotional fluency and character development.

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    • wayseeker profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Colorado


      So pleased to see someone reading this. I did a lot of work on it in its day. Unfortunately, on here, not everything made it upon Hubpages, as I've not had the time to get it all in. This is based on an undergraduate thesis I wrote back in 1999. Should you find it interesting enough, let me know and I can e-mail you the entire piece.



    • profile image

      Frida Keaton 

      5 years ago from Wyoming

      I've heard before that music can sometimes be correlated to mathematical achievement. I plan to check out the other parts of this series, I am interested in learning more.


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