Wired for sound

The brain has a complex interconnected set of pathways for processing music

Brain imaging shows that music perception involves a wide range of brain regions. Many are specialised: music evoking happiness and joy, for example, leads to increased activity in a network including the evolutionarily ancient emotional areas of the brain.

The experiences of people with brain damage, often from injury or stroke, tell us about how the brain understands music. For example, people with damage to a particular region on the right side of the brain can no longer tell whether a pitch changes to a higher or lower note. As a result they cannot perceive a tune’s ups and downs over time – its melodic contour.

There is overlap between music perception and other brain functions, particularly music and language. For example, anomalous or unexpected events in both music and language are detected by similar brain regions.

Annotated illustration of the brain showing the different areas involved in sound perception
  1. Auditory processing: pitch, rhythm, harmony, lyrics, timbre.
  2. Visual perception: performing, dancing, music reading.
  3. Sensory analysis: foot tapping, singing.
  4. Expectancy and contemplation: consonance/dissonance, tempo change.
  5. Personality and preference: tastes, subcultures.
  6. Memory: association with past events.
  7. Emotions: feelings (such as joy), physical sensations (such as goosebumps).

Illustration © Glen McBeth

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development