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.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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