The Relationship between Music and the Mind

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Music. We’re all familiar with it. As a college student, I see people walking around with their headphones in everyday. The cool things about that is that each person has a specific genre or artist for their every day listening pleasure. If I asked you to name your favorite song, could you do it? Whenever I ask people this question, there is always hesitation. Too many choices to narrow it down to one answer. On a larger scale, music also surrounds us wherever we go. Whether we’re standing in an elevator, shopping in the supermarket, watching a television show, or just listening to our personal collection it’s there. This being said, music has more relevance than what we understand on the surface.

If you’re too busy and just don’t have the time to read or you’re like me and you have troubling focusing, you can watch this crash course Youtube video which is less than ten minutes. Otherwise, I highly encourage you to dedicate your time to reading this article and learning about the effects music can have on the brain. (If you decide to skim — that’s okay too. make sure you just pay attention to the bold headings).

Music and Neuroscience

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Music is much more than just the sounds and words that we enjoy hearing. Music is an art. It’s aesthetic. It also has a direct relationship to cognition. Because of this, many scientists interested in neuroscience have done research on the different ways that music can influence the brain. Some influences include music therapy, music education, music psychology, and other aspects. As we continue to study the brain and music we are constantly gaining knowledge about how they work together. This article, however, will discuss three main points; the relationship of music and emotions, learning, and memory.


In my opinion the impact of music on our emotions is the most common effect that people are aware of. When we’re in a sad mood we tend to listen to sad music. When we’re in a happy mood, we tend to listen to more upbeat music. Or, one the other hand, listening to a song that is meant to evoke a certain emotion can change our moods as we listen. On this subject, many arguments have been presented claiming that people get confused and think that the emotions expressed are the emotions they are feeling. Almost 20 years ago, Clifford K. Madsen created a study in which he would observe participant’s emotional responses to music. He found that when different people listened to the same song the majority recorded having the same positive and negative feelings during certain parts of the song.

The simple way to understand the impact of music on our emotions is through facial expressions. Our facial expression most commonly inform others of our happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. But what is really going on inside our brains when we listen to music? On a more detailed level, these expressions are reactions caused by parts of the brain, mainly the amygdala which controls our emotions. When the music reaches our brains the amygdala reacts to it based on the corresponding emotion. Furthermore, an article written by Brattico and Pearce discusses emotional music pieces and the specific corresponding areas of the brain that are activated when they are heard. Slow piano pieces that evoked sad emotions in individuals were shown in the left medial frontal gyrus and superior frontal gyrus(Brattico and Pearce 2013). Upbeat songs that evoked happiness were shown to be experienced in the ventral striatum and also the left superior temporal gyrus(Brattico and Pearce 2013).

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Scientists at Duke University are working to understand emotions as they are shown on a functional MRI

Basically, different emotional songs activate different parts of out brains.


Learning with music is something that starts before we are born (Tervaniemi 2017). Mothers who are pregnant will spend nights singing to their unborn babies, playing soft lullaby’s, or even playing their favorite songs that they want their children to grow up loving. Immediately after birth, it was shown that the brain responses of infants who were played music throughout pregnancy differed from those that were not played anything (Tervaniemi 2017). While still in the womb, babies brains are learning how to respond to music. And even after we are born, that relationship between music and learning continues to grow in many different ways.

I think that many people out there are familiar with the theory that young children who are taught to play an instrument do better academically as they grow up. This is why many children are taught to play the recorder in elementary school. It is a way to jump start their neurological function. This being said, do not worry if you cannot afford lessons or even an instrument for your child to play. Evidence suggests that engaging in voluntary dancing, singing, and listening to music in the home setting has positive impacts on neural function as well(Tervaniemi, 2017).

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Learning an instrument causes our brains to work harder. Honestly, learning to read music could be compared to learning a new language. It kind of is. Children who are learning to read music appear to be better at encoding phonetic information that those who are not. In general, the working memory of those who are learning to play an instrument is stronger than those who aren’t.

When we start school, we learn language by singing our ABC’s. When I was a freshman in high school, my math teacher taught us the quadratic equation to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel”. Sophomore year my Spanish teacher would have us sing in Spanish at least once a week to improve our vocabulary. Junior year my English would have us listen to songs and then analyze them.

When we’re tying to encode information, many times it’s easier when we create some type of song or rhyme. This leads me to the next point, music and memory.


When you listen to a song, can you recall one specific memory that happened when listening to the song? For me, it’s Coldplay’s Viva La Vida. I was coming home from getting my braces put on and I was in a terrible amount of pain. My mom and I were sitting at a stoplight when that song came on the radio. Because it was my favorite song at the time I turned it up and immediately was lost in the song, my pain forgotten. Now whenever I hear that song I think of that day and how it impacted my mood.

Recalling memories like that is not the only way that music impacts memory. Listening to the same song when encoding and recalling information makes the whole process easier. So, why is this? Nguyen and Gran discuss the two-stage theory of memory in an article published in 2017. This theory states that the retrieval of information is easier for us when we recognize it rather when we have to recall it ourselves (Nguyen and Grahn 2017). When that certain song comes on the radio (or whatever platform you’re listening on) we immediately recognize it, and because that song was playing when a certain piece of information was encoded or a a memory was created we are more likely to have an easier time recalling it.

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Key Take Aways

I hope you’ve found the information presented interesting and informative. For something so trivial like music there is so much to be learned about it.

  1. Emotion: Music can influence our emotions by evoking responses from different parts of our brains.
  2. Learning: Exposure to music from a young age will have a positive impact on learning ability to learn.
  3. Memory: Music impacts our memory in that when a song is linked to a certain piece of information it is easier to recall that information when we hear the song.


Brattico, E., & Pearce, M. (2013). The neuroaesthetics of music. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(1), 48–61. doi:

Tervaniemi, M. (2017). Music in learning and relearning: The life-span approach. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind and Brain, 27(3), 223–226. doi:

Nguyen, T., & Grahn, J. A. (2017). Mind your music: The effects of music-induced mood and arousal across different memory tasks. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind and Brain, 27(2), 81–94. doi:

Cohen, A., Bailey, B., & Nilsson, T. (2002). The importance of music to seniors. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind and Brain, 18(1–2), 89–102. doi:

Madsen, C. K. (1997). Emotional response to music. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind and Brain, 16(1–2), 59–67. doi:

Miranda, D., Gaudreau, P., & Morizot, J. (2010). Blue notes: Coping by music listening predicts neuroticism changes in adolescence. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4(4), 247–253. doi:

Vuoskoski, J. K., & Eerola, T. (2012). Can sad music really make you sad? indirect measures of affective states induced by music and autobiographical memories. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(3), 204–213. doi:

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