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Music and the Brain: Hardwired for Song

Updated on September 3, 2017

Recent Discoveries:

As humans, we all have the capacity to process random sounds as they occur in our environment, and have had this capacity from birth since the beginning of human history. However, music is not just a collection of random sounds; it is organized sound, with a structure created by humans to communicate with other humans. For years, scientists who have studied the brain have thought that the capacity for the brain to comprehend and conceive of music was located in one particular region of the brain.

Recent research in the past 15 years now show that music activates all areas of the brain, with different areas of the brain processing different aspects of the music it hears. One area of the brain processes the pitch (highness or lowness of notes), another area, the rhythm (durations of pitch and pulses that create tempo), another area analyzes the timbre or quality of the sound produced (smooth or ragged, dry or wet), and another area interprets the consonance or dissonance produced by the concurrent sounding of 2 or more pitches simultaneously (harmony), and the brain assimilates all this different data and arrives at a conclusion of whether or not it is a pleasurable experience or a disturbing one (emotions).

Musical brain
Musical brain | Source

And all of this occurs at such a speed that the human does not notice any lag time, and can spontaneously react in real time to the music it is hearing. While there are areas in this newly emerging area of exploration that still provide mysteries to be solved, many discoveries have been documented by extensive research and testing to have established some of the following characteristics and actions of the brain in relation to music.

The Singing Neanderthals:

While archeological and paleontological research has uncovered early instruments that go back as far as 55,000 years ago, there is little evidence to assess when humans began to create music. The evidence of these primitive flutes indicates that our human ancestors already had enough of an understanding of music to be sophisticated enough to arrange a series of pitches which created the earliest musical systems of pitch, and the creativity and ingenuity to manufacture an instrument that would reproduce these sounds.

Since this development of music occurred before there were any of the historical records (cave drawings, pictographs, written or spoken languages, etc.) to reveal to us other musical instruments or vocal performance that preceded the flutes, it has been asserted by some researchers that the Neanderthals would use short “musical” phrases of sounds and utterances that would communicate their thoughts and emotions to others.

The reason that this is believed to be possible is that the Neanderthal, unlike his predecessors, had an enlarged skull, of which the lower jaw provided new possibilities for producing a wide variety of sounds, and for being able to project and sustain those sounds. In addition, the Neanderthals’ larynx (voice box) had moved further down into the throat than his predecessors that also enabled him to have more control over the pitches and sound he created.

His large skull and large chest also provided him with the power of projection of sound, which would be comparable to a trained opera singer. It is now being argued that these early examples of music making show that the development of language did not necessarily precede the development of music as a means for communication, but may have evolved concurrently or as a result of the music making.

Cross Cultural Similarities:

One of the other astonishing and remarkable discoveries about the earliest known music making worldwide is that regardless of geographic location or cultural identities, a specific set of five musical tones (or notes) are present in all cultures. This is a pentatonic scale, which can be seen as the black keys on a piano, and the relationships between these five notes is constant throughout all cultures regardless of how many defined notes have evolved in all the various cultures throughout time.

In Western Music, our modern musical scale consists of 12 defined notes or tones from which all elements for melody and harmony are derived. The musical scale is comprised of specific distances or pitches from one successive note to the next, and these distances are measure in “whole tones” or “half tones”. In certain circumstances, some of these tones are bent or slightly shifted (as in jazz and blues) to create “microtonal” variations, which are and integral part of the more enlarged scales utilized in Eastern music.

Nevertheless, it is not unlikely that the five tones of the pentatonic scale have been hard-wired into the human brain from the start. Other crucial elements of music include rhythm and harmony, and the human brain has the capacity to create and analyze these elements of music throughout all styles of music, whether or not we are familiar with them.

Pre-birth Development:

Recent research has shown that the fetus in the womb has fully developed auditory functions at twenty weeks, and hears music in the womb. Whether the sound is being created externally or internally (such as the mother’s heartbeat and her singing), the fetus begins their understanding and knowledge of music before birth. When a new baby emerges from the womb, it already understands the concepts of pitch, rhythm, and movement inspired by the rhythm of the music it hears. Mothers have attested to the “dancing” of their fetus in the womb while they are listening to rhythmic music.

Analysis of recordings of babies crying reveal (with recordings made that are slowed down and graphically imaged) specific song like patterns for particular kinds of emotions the infant is experiencing. Mothers can often tell why their child is crying; they have learned to decode the messages that are being “sung” by their wailing infants to mean things such as “I’m hungry”, “I’m in pain”, “I’m tired”.

By hearing music while still in the womb, humans become predisposed to certain aspects of music that please them, and acquire understanding of the cultural styles and variations present in their environment. If a fetus hears nothing but Western music, it will be predisposed to that music by the time it is born, and will only develop a taste for to other styles of music over time as it becomes consciously curios to explore the unfamiliar.

Music Effect on Brain
Music Effect on Brain | Source

Musicians and Non-Musicians:

The brains of musicians and non-musicians share some remarkable characteristics. Many non-musicians in western culture have the notion that they are not intelligent enough to understand music or are unable to develop any skills as a performer of music. In fact, the skill of performing music was not relegated to a chosen few until about 500 years ago, when the first concert halls started to appear in Europe. Until then, music was a communal activity, shared by all with group singing and playing. In many cultures worldwide, this behavior is still present, and the notion of sitting and watching a performance by musicians at a specific time and place is unnatural. Further evidence of the commonality of music in earlier cultures is the fact that in many languages, the word for “music” and “dance” are the same, as those cultures have always experienced those two activities occurring simultaneously.

Non-musicians have many of the skills that professional musicians have, including the ability to tell if a note is out of pitch, if the rhythm is inconsistent, if a song they are familiar with is played by a different ensemble at a different tempo, they will recognize it. We are all born with the capacity to comprehend and perform music to one degree or another, but that degree of difference in skills is often the result of constant engagement with music. For true literacy and proficiency in music, it has been discovered that it requires about ten thousand hours of direct study and engagement in the craft of music, or the equivalent of 20 hours a week for 10 years.

All indications are that this should start as early as possible, while the brain is still engaging in developing new connections internally. By the age of 15 or 16 years, the brain is starting to slow down the process of building connections and links to other areas of the brain, and it starts to parse those connections that are no longer important.

The area of departure between musicians and non-musicians is that the brain itself undergoes physical changes that make a visual review of the images we can now see of the brain obvious. The brain of the musician has more gray matter, and the corpus collosum (which connects the two hemispheres of the brain) is larger and more developed. Real time visual analyses of the brain activity of a performing musician reveal that the brain of a musician while performing is more active in more regions of the brain than that of another human engaged in any other kind of activity.

Implications of the Research:

What is almost universally agreed upon by all who are engaged in the study of the human brain is that music does indeed activate complicated activity in the brain, both in the reception of the sonic information and its interpretation. It also causes changes in our temperature, our mood, our pulse rate and blood pressure, prompts movement in response to rhythm, and can engage us in deeply complex emotions which language alone cannot.

The skills to perform music also can crossover into other functions of life, as the cognitive centers of the brain are engaged and can actively respond to the demands of other cognitive tasks as new connections are made. There is a growing world of music therapy, where it has been discovered that Alzheimer’s patients can be treated with positive results from exposure to music, and stroke victims who have lost the ability to speak can be trained to sing what they wish to communicate.

Music Psychology
Music Psychology | Source

Premature newborn infants who have difficulty in taking food can be coaxed into a state where they can swallow to take nourishment, and can be lulled to sleep or to more activity by the exposure to music. The most singularly important aspect of all these discoveries about music and the brain is that it should occupy an important part of our lives, starting with music education in the public schools at an early ages, as is common in many other countries of the world. Music is as basic a part of the human brain as any of the other functions, and will enhance our quality of life and a better comprehension of the world around us. It is also a bridge to peaceful and constructive relationships with our other planetary neighbors in the human community.


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    • profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      That all true Mel, music clearly has its way of getting to our heads and becoming associated with certain events or times. Thanks for commenting!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      8 years ago from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado

      Very well written hub. I actually have a theory that music is more efficiently stored in our memory, because I can remember the words of songs going back to when I was four or five years old, whereas mere written or spoken words are quickly forgotten, unless they have some sort of poetic quality to them. Sometimes I drive my kids crazy when I am driving down the road singing a song I heard in 1972. They wonder where I store them all when I can't even remember where I put my car keys sometimes. Great hub!

    • profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Thanks phoenix2327, glad you liked the hub. I'm also very glad that you picked up a few new things here. :)

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 

      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      You've certainly done your homework on this. This is a very interesting hub and I learned a few things. Well done.


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