Your Brain and Music - It’s a Catchy Thing

Your Brain and Music

Our favorite songs reach further than our ears – they speak to our brains and can affect our emotions. A catchy tune latches onto our mind, and we can’t get it out of our heads. Music casts a spell in many different ways, and scientists continually study the effects of music on the brain as a means to further understand overall brain function.

Musical preferences vary, but it all means the same to our brains.

Some scientists refer to the brain’s ability to consume and make sense of music as “organized sound.” The brain’s highly complex ability to organize these sounds demonstrates more efficacy than even a computer’s capacity to identify and process music, according to Medical Daily.

A study conducted by Daniel Abrams, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine, found that music nearly had an identical effect in all study participants’ brains that listened to symphonies by William Boyce while receiving an fMRI scan. Medical Daily reported that music “activated brain regions that are involved in movement, planning, attention, and memory — which means that when we listen to music, we aren’t just simply processing sound, like background noise or the sound of a car engine.” Another study found that music encourages our imagination—proven to be one of our most powerful survival mechanisms.

Why do songs get stuck in my head?

That catchy song you can’t shake is called an earworm, which tends to be an 8-second fragment of a song’s chorus. And more often than not, there are common patterns or characteristics for “sticky” songs, such as being repetitive and simple.

"It's an interesting everyday phenomenon,” psychologist Vicky Williams told NPR. “It happens to at least 90 percent of people once a week, [they] get a tune stuck in their head. And it's a very effortless form of memory, so we're not even trying, and this music comes into our head and repeats.”

Since earworms represent only a small portion of the song, listening to the song in its entirety might just cure the annoyance. It completes the loop and allows our brains to move onto other patterns and puzzles.

Take a trip down memory lane with music.

Music can transport us to a specific time and place and spur nostalgia. Certain songs create the soundtrack for our own autobiographical story. A familiar tune triggers the medial pre-frontal cortex region of the brain to recall a person or place and bring it to the forefront of our minds. We can even feel emotions connected to the memory. Many recent studies are exploring the potential therapeutic and treatment potential of music for Alzheimer’s patients.

Ludwig van Beethoven said “music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” Music continues to prove to be a force in our minds, memories and emotions.

Want to learn more about the healing powers of music? Read how one Indiana University Health musical therapist uses music for in-patient emotional and therapy support.