Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Hearing and Music


I'll state my hypothesis for how music reacts with the brain to cause us to enjoy music.

I believe that music interacts with the oscillation and synchronizations of the neural network signals in the brain to produce resonances in the neural signal loops.  The oscillations, synchronizations and resonances cause the FAPs action patterns of movement to become active resulting in movements such as foot tapping and dance movements.  The oscillations, synchronizations and resonances somehow excite the limbic system to release neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, which then interact with the nucleus accumbens and frontal cortex circuits to produce a euphoria.

I am constantly on the lookout for reports of fMRI studies and other scientific investigations that would lend credence to these ideas.

Perhaps music creates a resonance in the brain between neurons firing in synchrony with a sound wave and a natural oscillation in the emotion circuits? (Pinker; How the Mind Works, 538)

Music and the Brain

Different aspects of music are handled by different neural regions.  Brain uses functional segregation for music processing, and employs a system of feature detectors, which functioned to analyze specific aspects of the musical signal, such as pitch, tempo, timber, and so on. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 84)

Words and music are processed in different parts of the brain. (Carter; Mapping the Mind, 147)


Research study — Music Processing Modularity


Brain Regions Active in Music

Listening to music caused a cascade of brain regions to become activated in a particular order -- (1) auditory cortex for initial processing of the components of the sound.  Then (2) frontal regions, such is be BA44 and be BA47, identified is being involved in processing musical structure and expectations.  Finally, (3) a network of regions -- the mesolimbic system -- involved in arousal, pleasure, and the transmission of opioids and the production of dopamine, culminating in activation in the nucleus accumbens. The cerebellum and basal ganglia were active throughout, presumably supporting the processing of rhythm and meter. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 187)

Cochlear Nucleus chapter. (Shepherd; Synaptic Organization of the Brain, 121)

Drawing of the auditory periphery (diagram), external ear middle ear, inner ear; three middle ear ossicles: malleus, incus, stapes; inner ear: cochlea of the auditory system, semi circular canals of the vestibular system. (Squire; Fundamental Neuroscience, 700)

Brain Oscillations, Synchronization, and Music

Auditory cues can capture one's attention.  Such attentiveness results in brain waves becoming synchronized with the binaural beat frequency.  This synchronized brain activity seems to establish a pleasing resonance that captures the entire range of human emotions. (Daniel J. Schneck and Dorita S. Berger, The Music Effect, 121)

To be moved by music (physically and emotionally) it helps to have a readily predictable beat.  Composes accomplished this by subdividing the beat in different ways, and accenting some notes differently than others.  Great "groove" in music pertains to the way in which the  beat divisions create a strong momentum. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 166)

Layer 4 cortical neurons show a resonance and subthreshold oscillations in the 10 -- 30 ms time period, and their resonant properties make them especially sensitive to inputs at this frequency. (Buzsáki; Rhythms of the Brain, 163)

Part of Crick's hypothesis was that consciousness emerges from the synchronous firing at 40 Hz of neurons in the brain. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 184)

Music breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does, and our cerebellum finds pleasure in adjusting itself to stay synchronized. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 187)

The function of the brain on music involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 188)

In music with a pronounced rhythm, activity of some neurons was entrained by the beat, just as if the neurons were clapping in unison. (Calvin; Neil's Brain, 73)

Some researchers, commenting half-seriously about rock music, say that neurons are firing in the "bursting" pattern reminiscent of that seen in recordings from epileptic areas. (Calvin; Neil's Brain, 73)


National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) researchers discovered that synchronous firing of neurons in the brain followed a subject’s making a deliberate effort to pay attention to a particular sensory stimulus, while ignoring all other distractions.  Cerebral neurons excited by specific attributes conspicuously synchronize their activity and the gamma (40-90 Hz) range of the EEG, indicating extremely strong brain activity.

Music and Movement

A most natural response of the human body to music is a synchronization of anatomical movements and other physiological/psychological functions with musical rhythms. (Daniel J. Schneck and Dorita S. Berger, The Music Effect, 120)

Link to —  Music and the Brain -- Emotion and Movement


Prosody in Speech and Music

Rhythmic, melodic intonation in speech that contributes  social and emotional elements of meaning to language is term "prosody." (Miller; Human Frontal Lobes, 74)



Subcortical Structures Active in Music

Listening to music starts with subcortical structures -- cochlear nuclei, brain stem, cerebellum -- and then moves up to auditory cortices on both sides of the brain. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 84)

Tapping along with music, either actually or just in your mind, involves the cerebellum's timing circuits. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 84)

Cerebellum has connections to many parts of the brain involved in attention and is intimately involved with the higher functions, setting the timing and rhythm and other aspects of language, memory, and emotion. (Ratey; User's Guide to Brain, 305)

Brain’s Emotions Structures Active in Music

Emotions we experience in response to music involve structures deep in the primitive, reptilian regions of the cerebellar vermis and the amygdala. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 85)

In listening to music, whole populations of neurons become active: pitch sequences (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, Brodmann areas 44 and 47), rhythms (lateral cerebellum and the cerebellar verminous), emotion (frontal lobes, cerebellum, amygdala, and the nucleus accumbens). (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 89)

Nucleus accumbens -- part of a network of structures involved in feelings of pleasure and reward, whether it is through eating, having sex, or listening to pleasurable music. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 89)

The rewarding and reinforcing aspects of listening to music seem to be mediated by increasing dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens and by the cerebellum's contribution to regulating emotion through its connections to the frontal lobe and the limbic system. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 187)

Intense musical emotion -- what subjects described as "thrills and chills" -- was associated with brain regions thought to be involved in reward, motivation, and arousal -- the ventral striatum, the amygdala, the midbrain, and regions of the frontal cortex. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 185)

The pleasure of music listening could be blocked by administering the drug nalaxone, believed to interfere with dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 185)

Certain musical instruments, particularly in the human voice, and certain musical compositions, evoke emotive states that includes a host of skin responses such as making the hair stand on end, producing shutters, and blanching the skin. (Damasio; Looking for Spinoza, 102)

Neural correlates of pleasurable states caused by listening to music capable of evoking chills and shivers down the spine. (Damasio; Looking for Spinoza, 103)

Brains Cognitive Function and Perception in Music

Perception is a process of inference, an analysis of probabilities. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 99) [Bayesian inference] 

Brain's task -- determine the most likely arrangement of objects in the physical world is, given the particular pattern of information that reaches the sensory receptors.  (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 99) [Bayesian inference]  [Gestalts]  [Llinás;  brain operates as a reality emulator.]

Computational systems in the brain synchronize neural oscillators with the pulse of the music, and began to predict when the next strong beat will occur.  As the music unfolds, the brain constantly updates the estimates of when new beats will occur, and take satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one, and takes delight when a skillful musician violates that expectation in an interesting way -- a sort of musical joke. (Levitin; Your Brain on Music, 187)

Annoying Sounds

What is the nature of annoying sounds on the neural network? (e.g. dripping of the leaky faucet) How do they differ from pleasant music?

Habituate to annoying sounds. (e.g. loud noise of a jackhammer breaking up pavement)



A good reference for the auditory system. (Purves, Neuroscience, 283)



Link to — Consciousness Subject Outline

Further discussion — Covington Theory of Consciousness