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On Music, Dopamine, and Making Sense of Sound

Daniel Levitin, in This Is Your Brain On Music, suggests the following sound experiment. Situate yourself someplace where you can close your eyes and focus on the sounds around you. When you open your eyes, write down each sound you heard and the object that made that sound. If you are in a relatively quiet spot, try this experiment the next time you are in a more sound-rich environment.

I began this article while sitting outdoors on an unusually warm day in the suburbs. I heard:

  • rustling of leaves from a squirrel scampering
  • buzz of gardener’s trimming tools
  • roar of an airplane
  • tweets and chirps of birds, quacking of ducks, crowing of crows
  • splash of water as a duck landed in the creek
  • hammering
  • creaking of wooden floor from my husband’s footsteps inside

How did I know what I heard? The sounds were absorbed and filtered through my auditory cortex. Based on memory, past experiences helped my brain to assign sounds to objects. Those sounds and objects were named in the areas of my brain that deal with language. Multiple brain areas were engaged in listening to these sounds, not unlike when listening and responding to music.

Levitin explains that the brain has a two-fold approach to deciphering sound: feature extraction and feature integration. As he describes it, in the process of feature extraction, the brain plucks out all of the individual components of the sound, thereby extracting the unique features of that sound. This process is called low-level.

In the second process, feature integration, the brain reintegrates what is heard to create an understanding of the sound. This process is called high-level. These two processes work in synch with one another, with the high-level making revisions based on the incoming low-level data. Most times, this dual processing results in accurate understanding, but occasionally – as with visual and auditory illusions – the result is off kilter.

As Levitin states, “Our ability to make sense of music depends on experience, and on neural structures that can learn and modify themselves with each new song we hear, and with each new listening to an old song.” Ultimately, “Music…can be thought of as a type of perceptual illusion in which our brain imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds.”

We are not hard-wired for any particular type of music, but according to Levitin, by the age of five children “recognize chord progressions in the music of their culture.” We begin to develop expectations for songs in particular genres, and from those we make predictions about what may come next.

Levitin suggests that part of the emotional component of music stems from a piece breaking out of what we expect, and in order for that to happen we first need to have an internal schema that represents a norm. I liken this to the process of good design. It is necessary to understand the rules of design before it is possible to break them effectively.

The Dopamine Connection

Our emotional response to music is handled by the amygdala, cerebellum and nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is also involved in the release of dopamine, which helps control physical movement, as well as feelings of pleasure and addiction. In this 57 second video, Daniel Levitin discusses the impact of dopamine in the brain. (Scroll down for the video.) The role of the nucleus accumbens is particularly interesting to me as I facilitate movement sessions for people who have mobility limitations.

In a person with Parkinson’s Disease, the release of dopamine is blocked. The nucleus accumbens is part of the basal ganglia, and in someone with Parkinson’s 50 to 60 percent of the neurons in the basal ganglia begin to deteriorate, resulting in a loss of dopamine. This loss of dopamine impacts the balance of excitation and inhibition of neurons. With this loss of balance in neuron firing, signals sent from the brain are not being executed properly. Since the basal ganglia deals with movement, primary symptoms of Parkinson’s include a hand tremor, slowness of movement, rigidity, and postural instability.

All of these symptoms are neurological. The body part is still functional, but the brain’s messaging system is no longer sending appropriate signals to the body part. In other words, the hands and legs could still work just fine if the brain were able to get the messages out to those body parts.

It turns out that music can facilitate movement for people who have Parkinson’s. It is as if the music massages the message, assisting the brain impulse in traveling to its intended location. This seven minute PBS News Hour piece describes how Dance Helps Parkinson’s Patients Harness Therapeutic Power of Movement.

The Healing Power of Music

As Levitin states, “music listening and music therapy have been shown to help people overcome a broad range of psychological and physical problems.” The impact of music on people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s is particularly fascinating.

One of the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease … in older adults is memory loss. As the disease progresses, memory loss becomes more profound. Yet many of these old-timers can still remember how to sing the songs they heard when they were fourteen. Why fourteen? Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged; in general, we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to “tag” the memories as something important. Part of the reason also has to do with neural maturation and pruning; it is around fourteen that the wiring of our musical brains is approaching adultlike levels of completion. (Levitin p. 231)

Alive Inside is a documentary about the impact of music on people who live with dementia and Alzheimer’s. It focuses on the work of Dan Cohen, a social worker who started the process of crafting individualized song lists for these folks in his visits with them at nursing homes.

I volunteer at a local assisted living complex, where many of the participants have mobility limitations or cognitive issues, or both. During our sessions, I have seen connections reblossom when a familiar song plays. People will sing along to oldies, and there is often the added piece of a personal connection, as my hands connect with another’s, we move and sway and sing, we smile and look into each other’s eyes.

The Library of Congress has an excellent set of podcasts about Music and the Brain, quite a number of which deal with the healing power of music.

Music As Part of Our Biology

Scientists also have a part to play in understanding how humans relate to music. Levitin has a lovely chapter describing his encounters with James Watson and Francis Crick, known for sharing the discovery of DNA. He met them months apart, and his delight and awe at meeting them is readily apparent. Their work informs the connections that contribute to the emotional component of music.

Charles Darwin “believed [music] developed through natural selection as part of…mating rituals.” I immediately thought back to my junior and senior high school dances, and my freshman college year, where attending dances and dancing played a prominent role in my life. No different from today, moving one’s body to music can draw attention to one’s self, whether consciously or unconsciously aware of its implications as a mating ritual!

Daniel Levitan compels us to consider that music has a more powerful role than simply making us feel good. Presenting evidence from archaeology, evolutionary biology and anthropology, he makes the case for music as “sexual fitness display”, social bonding, and promoter of “cognitive development”. Toss in a little movement, and the combination can be a powerful emotional and cognitive balm!

Pre­vi­ous arti­cles by Lau­rie Bartels:


– Lau­rie Bar­tels writes the Neu­rons Fir­ing blog to cre­ate for her­self “the grad­u­ate course I’d love to take if it existed as a pro­gram”. She has been teach­ing for 30 years and is cur­rently the Lower School Tech­nol­ogy Coor­di­na­tor at The Foote School in New Haven, CT. When not teach­ing kids or other teach­ers, she facil­i­tates move­ment and yoga ses­sions for peo­ple who are deal­ing with mobil­ity or cog­ni­tion issues or both.

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