Mind Matters: Neuroscience of Music

5 min read

This series of articles has been adapted from [Mind Matters in Children] by Dr Kenneth Lyen. It delves into both the normal as well as the abnormal functioning of a child’s mind, and gives practical advice on how to manage children’s mental health and problems like ADHD, dyslexia, autism and depression.

The eardrum can sense the pitch and melody of music, and the signals are transmitted first to the two auditory centres which are located in the temporal lobes on both sides of the brain. This first step is important because it evokes an emotional response. 

The signal is then further transmitted to other areas of the brain. The lyrics of a song are processed in the left frontal cortex. The rhythm and timing of a piece of music is done in the frontal and parietal cortex, the cerebellum as well as the basal ganglia. 

A signal is also sent to the nucleus accumbens which is located deep in the brain and is part of the basal ganglia. This nucleus releases dopamine, the chemical that makes a person feel good. This is the biochemical mechanism of the soothing effects of music.

Another signal is sent to the amygdala which is attached to the basal ganglia, and when activated, sends a nervous impulse to the skin, so one can feel chills, goosebumps, or the hairs standing up in the back of the neck.

Then if a person starts singing, plays an instrument, or goes dancing, then the motor cortex is activated.

Reaping the benefits of music through music therapy

Music has a whole spectrum of positive effects, as listed in the previous article. As such, music has been used as a form of therapy to supplement and assist other treatments or therapies. 

We can define music therapy as the discerning use of music to maintain, promote and restore emotional as well as physical health. It enhances the following:

  • Auditory discrimination
  • Fine motor skills
  • Speech vocabulary
  • Non-reasoning skills
  • Memory

Music is currently being used as adjunct therapy for a variety of disorders, including the following:

  • Autism
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Schizophrenia
  • Pain relief
  • Pregnancy and delivery
  • Parkinson Disease
  • Stroke rehabilitation
  • Slowing down dementia and Alzheimer Disease
  • Cancer therapy

In the case of childhood autism, it appears that music improves social interaction, communication and social adaptation skills. Music also improves depressive symptoms as well as anxiety. In the case of surgery and intensive care, music therapy has a beneficial effect on anxiety, thereby reducing the need for medication. Pain relief is somewhat more controversial and the results are mixed.

How music therapy works is currently being explored using the newer methods of evaluating brain functions. To date, music therapy is thought to take advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity by rewiring neural connections. In young children, it might also help by pruning some of the “redundant” nerves. There is evidence that music therapy increases blood flow and increases dopamine in certain areas of the brain, resulting in helping not only in music activity, but also enhancing speech understanding.

Indeed, music can change our lives. That is the power of music. 


1. Hallam S. The psychology of music. Routledge 2019. ISBN-13: 978-1138098541

2. Margulis EH. The psychology of music. Oxford University Press 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0190640156

3. Schafer T et al. The psychological functions of music listening. Frontiers in Psychology 2013; 4: 511. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3741536/

4. Rauscher FH et al. Music and spatial task performance. Nature 1993; 365:611.

5. Incandescence. The Mozart effect. https://www.incadence.org/post/the-mozart-effect-explaining-a-musical-theory

6. Fabiny A. Music can boost memory and mood. Harvard Health Publishing 2015. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/music-can-boost-memory-and-mood

7. Second Wind Movement. Music and memory studies. https://secondwindmovement.com/music-and-memory/

8. Burnett D. Does music really help you concentrate? https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/aug/20/does-music-really-help-you-concentrate

9. Unify Health Team 2019. Does music help you focus and concentrate more effectively? https://unifyhealthlabs.com/music-help-focus-concentrate/

10. Vine B. BrainWorld 2019. Creative listening: how music can boost your creativity. https://brainworldmagazine.com/creative-listening-music-can-boost-creativity/

11. Suttie J. Greater Good Science Center 2017. How music helps us be more creative. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_music_helps_us_be_more_creative

12. Collins D. PsychCentral 2021. The power of music to reduce stress. https://psychcentral.com/stress/the-power-of-music-to-reduce-stress#research

13. Thoma MV et al. The effect of music on the human stress response. PLoS ONE. 2013; 8: e70156. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23940541/

14. Liisi. Weareteacherfinder 2019. How music helps language development. https://blog.weareteacherfinder.com/blog/music-helps-language-development/

15. Paterson J; PsychCentral 2016. Can listening to music help your child with language development and reading comprehension? https://psychcentral.com/lib/can-listening-to-music-help-your-child-with-language-development-and-reading-comprehension#3

16. Garrido S. Frontiers in Psychology 2015; 6: 977. Music and trauma: the relationship between music, trauma, personality and coping style. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4498438/

17. Phillips CS, Woods HL. Nurse 2021. A musical approach to coping with psychosocial stress. https://www.myamericannurse.com/a-musical-approach-to-coping-with-psychosocial-stress/

18. Klassen JA et al. Ambulatory Pediatrics 2008; 8: 117-128. Music for pain and anxiety in children undergoing medical procedures. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1530156707002857?via%3Dihub

19. Holden R and H. Br J of General Practice 2013; 63: 536. Music: a better alternative than pain? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3782778/

20. Forgeard M et al. Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0003566

21. Suttie J. Greater Good Magazine 2015. Four ways music strengthens social bonds.https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_ways_music_strengthens_social_bonds

22. Harvard Health Publishing 2019. Using music to tune the heart. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/using-music-to-tune-the-heart

23. Wikipedia. The neuroscience of music. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_of_music

24. Ginsborg J. HapidzFadli 2022. The psychological results of music on the mind. https://hapidzfadli.id/2022/03/10/the-psychological-effects-of-music-on-the-brain/

25. Dumont E et al. Frontiers in Psychology 2017; 8: 1694. Music interventions and child development. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5626863/

26. Novotney A. Music as medicine. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/11/music

Written by Dr Kenneth Lyen
Illustrated by Lee Ai Cing


Leave a Reply