The Musical Brain

Brain Topics

Auditory - The Five Senses Sound Waves Learning and Brain Activation
Language Processing Neuroscience Brain Facts
The Four Lobes of the Brain Neurons and Brain Cells Drendrites and Axons - Synapse

Auditory - Learning through the Sense of Hearing 

How does the brain process music?

The Five Senses

How do we hear?

"Sound waves enter your ear canal and hit your ear drum. This makes it vibrate. Three tiny bones in your middle ear link the vibrating ear drum with the inner part of your ear. The last of these bones is connected to a tiny bone structure that looks a bit like a snail shell, but is about the size of a pea. It is called the cochlea (pronounced cock-lee-ah). Your cochlea is filled with a liquid that carries the vibrations to thousands of tiny hair cells. Each cell is tuned to a particular sound (or frequency). As these little hair cells move in the fluid, they carry a message to the nerve that is connected to your brain, which turns this signal into what you hear. All this happens in a fraction of a second."  Resource: 

Seeing, Hearing, and Smelling the World - Howard Hughes Medical Center 

This is a great website presenting research on how we hear and how the brain processes sensory input.  These readings are optional, but they provide some wonderful resources for understanding how we know the world through auditory experiences.  Here's a quote from "Sensing Change in the Environment." "Everything we know about the world comes to us through our senses. Traditionally, we were thought to have just five of them—sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.  Scientists now recognize that we have several additional kinds of sensations, such as pain, pressure, temperature, joint position, muscle sense, and movement, but these are generally included under "touch." (The brain areas involved are called the "somatosensory" areas.)"

Brain Activity by Age - Stages of Development Through Sensory Experiences in the First Year

Learning through the Senses - Great Sites for Kids

How the Brain Responds to Music Sound Waves


  • Our non-dominant hemisphere processes harmonic structure, interval, quality, timbre, and the spatial, temporal, and long-term patterns of music. (right for most people)

  • Our dominant hemisphere recognizes short term signatures, rapid variance in volume, rapid and accurate pitch trajectory, pacing, and lyrics (left for most people


Two Cerebral Hemispheres - Left and Right

  • Connected by bundles of nerve fibers
  • Allows each side of the brain to exchange information more freely
  • Although each side processes things differently, the early concept of left brain/right brain is outdated
  • Left-handed and Right-handed people use differing parts of the hemisphere for some activities
  • Left Hemisphere
    • Processes things more in parts and sequentially
    • Musicians process music in left hemisphere
  • Right Hemisphere
    • Music and Arts have been considered right-brain "frills" but trained musicians use more left-brain and novice musicians use more right.
    • Higher-level mathematicians, problem solvers, and chess players actually have more right-brained activity, but beginners use more left brain.


   The Thalamus

The thalamus is often thought of as the individual consciousness - the "You"

  • Narrow bands across the top middle of the brain
    • Sensory Cortex - Monitors skin receptors
    • Motor Cortex - Needed for Movement
  • Cerebellum
    • Latin for "the little brain"
    • Back lower area of the brain
    • Responsible for balance, posture, motor movement, and some areas of cognition
    • Thought to include the essential long-term memory traces for motor learning.


Music is processed differently for different people depending on kind of music and musical background.

  • Familiar music activates Broca's area (left hemisphere)
  • Rhythm notes are activated in Broca's area and the cerebellum
  • Harmony activates the left side of the brain more than the right in the inferior temporal cortex.
  • Timbre activated the right hemisphere (the only musical element that did)
  • Pitch activated an area on the left back of the brain - the precuneus.
  • Melody activated both sides of the brain.
  • Composite listening - Left and Right Hemisphere - Auditory Cortex
  • Understanding lyrics - Wernicke's Area

Wernicke's Area - Lyrics

Auditory Cortex - Melodic Contour

Learning Changes the Brain!


Brain Activation with Different Stimulation and Levels of Activity

Performing music makes neural connections between various parts of the brain.  Auditory and motor activities take place through playing an instrument.  Rhythm and melody instruments require motor coordination.  Reading music involves visual activity.  Singing songs and recalling or reading lyrics activate language processing areas of the brain.  Dancing or moving to the rhythm of music stimulates the brain's motor areas.  

Brain research provides support for emphasizing the visual and performing arts in the classroom!

Auditory Activity


Motor Activity


Visual Activity



The Resting Brain



What a Pet Scan Can Do 

Language Processing

A good example of the fantastic imaging capabilities of PET is shown in the images at the left, made by Dr. Marcus Raichle, at the Neuroimaging Lab or the Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, USA.

These scans "were taken under two different conditions. In the first one (uppermost image), an individual was hearing a text, in order to learn a new language task. The color map shows the regions of the brain which were activated by this task, in other words, where there were cells working more than in their resting state, with a higher metabolism (using more energy and more blood flow). The PET machine shows the degree of activity in several tones of color, like in a rainbow. Yellow and red regions are "hotter", that is, they indicate a higher cell activity. Blue and black regions show decreased activity or none at all. While obtaining this image, the patient was still unpracticed at the language learning task. The highest brain activities are shown in an area called temporal lobe, responsible for the hearing perception, and in another area called prefrontal cortex, responsible for understanding language.

In the second condition (lowermost image), the same individual has now learned the language task and is spelling out. You can easily see in the color map that two different regions of the brain were activated in each condition. Now the activity is concentrated in the area of the cortex which is responsible for the motor control of voice, the so-called area of Broca, so named because it was discovered by a French physician named Paul Broca, in the turn of the century. Thus, the functional map obtained with PET closely corresponds with what we know about the brain's functional neuroanatomy, discovered by other methods. The difference here is that we can actually obtain a real-time image of brain function."



We now know much more about how the brain functions due to technological advancements in "Neuroscience."

Explore these online resources on the brain!

Neuroscience - Developing through 1970's, 1980's, and 1990's

Facts About the Human Brain


  • Weighs approximately 3 pounds
    • Mostly water - 78%
    • Fat - 10%
    • Protein - 8%
  • Soft enough to cut with a butter knife
  • Grapefruit-sized organ
  • Outside of the brain 
    • Convolutions or folds
    • Wrinkles are part of the cerebral cortex
    • Folds allow maximum surface area
  • Makes up critical portion of the nervous system
    • Nerve cells connected by nearly 1 million miles of nerve fibers
  • Has the largest area of uncommitted cortex of any species giving humans flexibility for learning.
  • Brain consumes about 20% of the body's energy .
  • The Brain uses about 1/5 of the body's oxygen.
  • The Brain gets about 8 gallons of blood each hour (supplying nutrients like glucose, protein, trace elements, and oxygen).
  • Brain needs 8-12 glasses of water a day for optimal functioning.
  • Two kinds of brain cells:
    • Glia - (Greek word meaning glue)
      • 90% of the brain cells 
      • Less known about glia cells 
      • No cell body
      • Remove dead brain cells and give structural support
    • Neurons (Greek word meaning bowstring)
      • 100 billion neurons in human brain
      • Neurons essential to performing the brain's work
      • Consist of a compact cell body, dendrites, and axons

Lobes - Four Areas of the Brain

Frontal Lobe

Parietal Lobe

Temporal Lobe

Occipital Lobe


Territory in the Middle of the Brain - The Emotional Area of the Brain

Neurons - Brain Cells

Gallery of Neurons - 


Dendrites and Axons

Neurons have specialized projections called dendrites and axons. Dendrites bring information to the cell body and axons take information away from the cell body.  Information from one neuron flows to another neuron across a synapse. The synapse is a small gap separating neurons.  (The Synapse -

A neuron typically has many dendrites and one axon. The dendrites branch and terminate in the vicinity of the cell body. In contrast, axons can extend to distant targets, more than a meter away in some instances. Dendrites are rarely more than about a millimeter long and often much shorter. Neurons communicate through specialized junctions called synapses. Axons typically make synapses with other neurons through specialized enlargements near their terminals. These synapses can occur on the cell bodies or the axons of other neurons, but most frequently they occur on dendrites. Thus, the dendrites of a neuron provide a surface for receiving synaptic inputs from other neurons. The arbor formed by the dendrites of a neuron often has a characteristic shape as determined by the spatial domains into which the dendrites family.  (From Morphology of Dendrites - - The Human Brain Project.)


Brain Activity Hotspots

Brain Websites

Music and the Brain Resources

Educational Articles from Educational Leadership (ASCD)

Research on Child Development 


Copyright 2003 by Carla Piper, Ed. D.