This is your brain on music

Tune in….I happened to catch Daniel Levitin (the author of This Is Your Brain on Music) on the Commonwealth Club on NPR a few weeks ago, and I was so intrigued by the interview that I went online to hear it again last night. This time I took notes!

Dr Daniel Levitin is a cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal, and he said music is involved in every region of the brain scientists have mapped so far. Music is processed in the emotional part of the brain. It stays deep in our long-term memory.

Research shows that listening to music releases certain chemicals in the brain. Dopamine, a “feel-good hormone” is released every time you listen to music you like. Listening to music with someone else can also release prolactin, a hormone that bonds people together. And if you sing together? You release oxytocin, which causes feelings of trust.

I have happy memories of singing “Shine on Harvest Moon” during car rides with my sisters and Flo, I am still bonded to friends I made in my high school band, and yes, I do get a happy feeling whenever I hear a good tune. Everythinghe Levitin said about hormones made perfect sense to me, but his claim later on that humans develop a taste for music by the time we are five years old seemed a bit outlandish.

Then again, my brother Doug did buy us that piano when I was three or four years old, and when I flip through our CD collection, what do I find? A heavy dose of piano players. Randy Newman. Todd Rundgren. Stevie Wonder. Joni Mitchell. Marcus Roberts. Ben Folds Five. Maybe that Levitin guy is on to something after all.

I’m off to play the stereo now. Bring on the dopamine! What music do you like to listen to? Leave a comment — I’d love to hear what sort of music gets you high.

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27 Responses to “This is your brain on music”


  1. 1 Carl January 12, 2012 at 10:10 am

    No doubt that music releases chemicals in the brain. I’m always happier when listening to music from new Orleans. In fact, I’m going to start my iPod now, thanks for this blog.

  2. 2 Mary January 12, 2012 at 10:11 am

    For me, it’s Frank Sinatra. Dreamy.

  3. 3 Craig January 12, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Talking Heads, The Pixies, Elvis Costello, The White Stripes, then I can be-dancin’ with myself…, thanks Beth, I’m going to check out his interview on NPR.

    Craig

  4. 5 Lauren Bishop-Weidner January 12, 2012 at 10:28 am

    What fun! I can’t wait to see what this one brings back to you. For us, the heaviest concentration of music is hard to pinpoint. We have a ton of blues; then we also have blues-influenced rock, bluesy women, singer-songwriters, and bluegrass; then there’s a bunch of classic rock, classical, and soundtracks…. And Randy Newman is in there, too.

    • 6 bethfinke January 13, 2012 at 10:15 am

      Lauren, your use of the word “us” makes me realize that in this post I pretty much noted the music I myself am drawn to, rather than whaat Mike and I are drawn to as a couple. If he were writing this post he’d probably mention Steely Dan, Van Morrison, James Taylor. I like those guys, too, but those ar the CDs he chooses to play more than I do. Oh, Bela Fleck and Beck, too, he puts those CDs in the player wayyyyyy more than I ever do. That said, our music taste meshes pretty well, and it is Mike who exposed me to Randy Newman and Bonnie Raitt, now two of my faves. I wonder if two people with complete opposite tastes in music could last long together…?

  5. 7 John January 12, 2012 at 10:43 am

    I’m a believer.
    I mean I believe what this guy says about Dopamine and all that.
    But hey, that song makes me happy when I hear it, too, so put me down for The Monkees.

  6. 8 taraisarockstar January 12, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Marshall is four years old so it’s great to know that exposing him to great music has been beneficial! If he hears a song on the radio he can tell if it is a Beatles song, which is pretty exciting for me!

    I wonder what if the emotional connection has anything to do with his desire to listen to the exact same song for days on end?!

  7. 10 kellyz January 12, 2012 at 10:48 am

    No wonder I’ve loved singing in choirs for so long! There’s truly nothing like that shared experience of performing an amazing piece of music, knowing that you’re part of something larger than yourself, sending something beautiful and meaningful out into the world. I have to thank my music-teacher parents for hooking me into choral singing!

    • 11 bethfinke January 13, 2012 at 10:25 am

      Let’s see. Your parents were music teachers, and you are involved in choral singing. If it’s true that singing together releases oxytocin, which causes feelings of trus, you must be a pretty strong family unit. Sing, sing, sing!

  8. 12 glivingston January 12, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Okay–would be remiss if I did not mention that I love hearing my kids play their instruments: Clara on the violin and Nathan on the baritone sax. They sound great when not too crabby about practicing, and it is wonderful to hear them play with their orchestras or ensembles as well. But one of my best memories is hearing Beethoven’s 6th symphony as a child. The version my parents had was an album with horses on it because it is the “pastoral” I guess, so we called it the “horse music”. I love that symphony, even though there are certainly other Beethoven symphonies that are better known. Hearing it puts me in a great mood.

    • 13 bethfinke January 13, 2012 at 10:28 am

      Any of you blog readers who are following these comments will want to know that Gretchen’s kids took lessons (and I think Clara stll does) from Rhona, who commented below. if you read my response to Rhona’s comment you will learn that hey, Gretchen’s kids must be pretty dang smart! take le

  9. 14 Myrna Knepler January 12, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Yes I have his book “The World in Six Songs”. I haven’t gotten far enough into it to comment, but we can talk about once I do.
    Myrna

    • 15 bethfinke January 13, 2012 at 10:30 am

      Didn’t realize he had another book (besides “Your Brain on Music”) Eager to hear what you think of his writing, Myrna. Gee, I may have to publish another blog post about it then!

  10. 16 penn nelson January 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    big band , smooth jazz, good voice sounds (with words you can understand and not the vulgar kind). Some country western is fun and some of the new stfuff is good, but give me big band, jazz and symphonic and the juices run good!

    Penn

    • 17 bethfinke January 13, 2012 at 10:33 am

      The thing that made me the most depressed about breaking my foot last summer was that it meant Mike and I couldn’t go to SummerDance in Grant Park and dance to live big band music. You’re right, Penn — nothing like a terrific big band playing swing music — and then dancing to it, too!

  11. 18 Rhona January 13, 2012 at 5:06 am

    Hi Beth – I am forwarding this column to all my students and colleagues!! Thanks for providing scientific validation of my personal observations!

    • 19 bethfinke January 13, 2012 at 10:51 am

      Wow. *All* of your students and colleagues? No wonder I’m getting so many hits on the post, that’s a lot of people!
      Rhona, I hope you get to hear this guy speak some time – I am going to see if I can get his book on audio, and if I do, might write another post. Myrna above left a comment that she has read something he wrote, so I’ll ask her, too.
      I try to keep my blog posts short, so had to edit a *lot* of other interesting stuff this Daniel Levitin guy said out of this story. Your students (and their parents) might also be interested in knowing that Levitin said researchers are trying to figure out if learning an instrument early on in life can make you smarter. He said
      There have been some rough starts in researching this in the last fifteen years. But studies are showing that kids who learn to play an instrument — not just passively listen, but learn to play — early on learn to read at an earlier age, you learn to read more quickly, you’re better at math, you’re better at a bunch of other scholastic topics.
      He said they’re not exactly sure why this is, and he wasn’t saying that music is the *only* thing that does this (he wondered if learning a second language early on might stimulate the brain this way, or learning to play chess early on in life, that sort of thing), but he said one thing he *does* know is that evidence is making it clear that learning an instrument early on in life really does help your brain. And I’d say, hey, if music uses many different parts of the brain, wouldn’t that be why?
      Keep up the good work with your music students, Rhona. You’re making the world smarter!

  12. 20 Carli Gernot January 13, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Beth, I’m a sucker for anything with good harmonies… Peter, Paul and Mary, The Mamas and the Papas, the Breeders and do wop from the 50s and 60s… I could listen (and sing to!) oldies all day long.. sometimes I do! And also big sound stuff… Phil Spektor’s “wall of sound” productions and one of my favorite bands is a Japanese avant guarde jazz orchestra called Shibusa Shirazu Orchestra. Amazemo.

    I love this post and I’m going to listen to the interview this weekend. I always knew music did something to me.

    • 21 bethfinke January 13, 2012 at 10:56 am

      Shibusa Shirazu Orchestra. I am going to check them out! So glad I happen to hear Daniel Levitin on the radio, the ideas he presented were so interesting, and now it has led me to good music suggestions from blog readers.

  13. 22 Andrea Kelton January 13, 2012 at 11:30 am

    I love Motown, Bob Seger, Tina Turner,The Righteous Brothers, Tchaikovsky and Willie Nelson…to name a few.

    Let’s boogie!
    Andrea

  14. 23 Cam January 13, 2012 at 11:31 am

    I’m afraid to listen to the interview…I’m afraid it will spell doom and gloom for me. I know I’m in the very tiny minority (perhaps the minority of one), but my feelings on music are, uh, less than passionate. If it’s on, I listen. If it’s not, I don’t even notice. I can go for days without listening to music and never realize it. Drives my husband nuts.

    That said, I’m not anti-music. I do have preferences and sing in the car.

  15. 24 Lori January 14, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    I’m a huge Wilco fan and recently started listening to Wild Flag, an all girl rock band featuring Carrie Brownstein. She is part of the Portlandia tv duo with Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live.

    • 26 bethfinke January 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm

      Wow! Library of Congress is the coolest! Thanks for this link, Karen – I checked it out, and the site says:
      The Library’s Music and the Brain events offer lectures, conversations and symposia about the explosion of new research at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and music. Project chair Kay Redfield Jamison convenes scientists and scholars, composers, performers, theorists, physicians, psychologists, and other experts…

      Back to me: the podcasts listed there are compelling, some about music and grieving, why do people enjoy listening to music that makes them weep, music therapy and post-traumatic stress. I hope to hear some of these, maybe it will motivate me to learn how to download podcasts!


  1. 1 Sublime | Safe & Sound blog Trackback on May 25, 2013 at 4:26 pm

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