The Magic and Mystery of Music perception

Isn’t it amazing how music can entertain, can help us cope with everyday life and even help us to heal? Sound production (voice) and listening to music are part of being fully human. Even babies in the womb can respond to music! It’s not telepathy, but is there a scientific explanation for all of this? Yes. Of course there is!

Archaeological records show that music’s been an integral part of human milestones and life events for many centuries. People seem to be most sensitive to the range of tones in the spectrum of human speech. But listening to or playing music is so much more than simply interpreting patterns of sound waves. Whether it’s the vibrations created by human voices raised in song or people playing musical or rhythmic instruments, music can still be enjoyed by people who struggle to, or cannot, hear sound; through sign language or dancing. How does that work?

Not every sound is musical, but sound has meaning so before we try to get a better understanding of how people experience music, we must first understand how our human ears act to process and amplify sound waves (vibrations in air) which are directed to the cochlea. It’s the tiny snail-shaped, fluid filled organ of hearing.  Deep within the skull, we have one cochlea on each side of our heads.

Music and the brain.

Decades of research into the physiology of hearing has confirmed that there are many different centres of the brain involved in interpreting and receiving sound. impulses travel from the inner ear to the brain via auditory pathways (8th cranial nerve).  In the brain, dedicated bundles of neurons decode the signals and make music meaningful – pitch, tone, loudness and rhythm. Physiologists’ research also shows that other senses – particularly vision and the balance system – have an essential part to play in the multi-step way music exerts its profound effect on the mind and the body. For example we might bob or dance to the music so another part of our inner ear – the semi-circular canals – enables us to stay balanced while we do that. Memory helps us to recognise the melody and lyrics of a piece of music.

The total sensory input ultimately influences the limbic cortex and amygdala (the emotional brain). That’s why music can make us feel good. Other strong evidence, from imaging studies, reveals that music listening and playing can stimulate the striatal dopaminergic system – the anatomical tract within the brain where pleasure is experienced. Some scientists also think that listening to music may help to shift brain activity away from pain-related connection patterns thus it may help relieve chronic and post-operative pain, anxiety and depression.

There’s a growing body of evidence about the science of playing music and also about applications for well-being and health, for example singing in workplaces or unlocking memories for people with dementias. There is still plenty of scope for researchers to explore the relationship between music, better health, and improved quality of life.

We mustn’t forget …

Sometimes the sound or a piece of music can trigger different responses that aren’t so pleasurable. Hearing a song that was played at the funeral of a beloved person might make us feel sad and melancholy, while other pieces make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Music can be chilling or so eerie so it gives you goose-bumps.  Some sounds give us the heebie-jeebies – it’s not music when you hear the scraping of chalk on a blackboard is it? Sometimes, apparently when we are feeling relaxed, music triggers an “earworm” that repeats and repeats and won’t go away. For still more people, tinnitus is a plague on their well-being; high pitched sound or pulsations that won’t go away – ever.

Historically, most of the research concerning sound and music perception is based on western cultures and classical music. In general, the evidence from physiology suggests that faster music tends to help people feel more alert and to concentrate better. Classical music tends to have been associated with a soothing effect; slower tempo seems to quiet the mind and relax muscles, helping to release stress and promote feelings of calm. Heavy metal “rock” has been claimed to enhance identity development and adjustment, while Meditation paired with music aims to centre us by directing attention and focus. Upbeat music seems to help people feel more optimistic and positive about life, while rap can be inspiring and motivating when dealing with difficult circumstances in life.

What kind of music do you prefer?

Music is everywhere, but who would be on your Playlist for Life? How should you go about choosing music for relaxation and a personal playlist that work to promote your well-being? The answer tends to rest with each of us as individuals. Forcing yourself to listen to sounds that irritate or worry you can create tension rather than reduce it. Led Zeppelin, Coldplay, the Beatles, Runrig and Ed Sheeran all feature high on my list, but these choices made someone in my family laugh out loud!  For you, it’s likely to be a different selection.

To each their own. But playing or listening to music is clearly a unique way to bring joy, connect us with our past and spark memories of special events in our lives. That’s well-being.


Agapaki, A., Pinkerton, E.A.,Papatzikis, E (2022) Music and neuroscience research for mental health, cognition and development. Front. Psychology, 13, August.

Arbib,M.A. (2013) Language, Music and the Brain, Cambridge, Massachusetts : The MIT Press.

Peretz, I; Zatorre, RJ (2003) The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music. Oxford University Press

Salimpoor, VN et al (2011) Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature neurosciences, 14, 257-262

Schnupp,, J.,Nelken, I., King, A.J., (2011) Auditory Neuroscience : Making Sense of Sound

Vuust, P., Heggli, O.A., Friston, K.J. et al. Music in the brain. Nat Rev Neurosci 23, 287–305 (2022).

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