Music and Hearing: An Intersensory Experience

When we listen to music, our brain's main sensory regions activate and communicate, which is an intersensory experience that includes hearing.

Music and Hearing: An Intersensory Experience
We remember more the one we consider sad. Music is "emotion incarnate". Photo by Gabriel Gurrola / Unsplash

Music triggers happiness, as much as making love or eating your favorite chocolate; when listening to a song we like, the brain releases dopamine, the fundamental engine of pleasure that is activated during eating and sex.

When listening to music, the main sensory areas of our brain activate and communicate with each other, making it an intersensory experience: it encompasses hearing and also involves the motor areas and numerous regions of the cerebral cortex related to language and emotions.

When we enjoy music, areas related to behavioral expression are stimulated, such as the frontal lobes; we mark the rhythm with a foot, hum the song or anticipate the next notes, which involves the sensory input and motor expressive output areas of the brain.

Listening to music produces emotions so intense that we shed tears or dance with joy, since this human organ is designed to respond to meaningful environmental stimuli, and emotions are part of that response. Human and animal emotions are designed as an evolutionary vehicle for the preservation and adaptation of the organism to the usually unexpected stimuli of the environment.

Music and pain

When music travels through the brain it makes several "stops": after passing through the ear, where high and low pitched sounds are separated to pass through a kind of different cables, it reaches the thalamus, a structure located in the central area of the brain that relays the signal to the primary, the secondary and tertiary auditory cortex.

The primary auditory cortex identifies frequency and intensity (note and volume); the secondary auditory cortex analyzes information about melody (linear succession of notes), harmony (relationship between two or more notes sounding at the same time), and rhythm (pattern of accented notes and weak notes). While the tertiary is in charge of integrating the information.

After this triple "concert", it continues its passage to other stages: regions associated with emotions, areas in charge of interpreting language, and pleasure centers. We remember more the one we consider sad than the one we consider joyful. Why? Perhaps it is not so much that today we want to savor that pain that refers us to a situation that evokes a certain piece of music: we can identify with it depending on whether we have lived through it or not.

In a certain way, we get feedback if the piece we want to listen to so much "hears" us, indeed, "responds" to us. Or at least that is the feeling it leaves us with. Although some listen to happy music when they are sad, that way they manage to stop paying attention to the problem for a moment. It is a matter of looking for alternatives that allow us to improve our mood.

Embodied emotion

Music is not a natural stimulus, but an artificial one, it is by definition an artifice, a human creation. So, how is it that a sound produces the same effect on us as a pleasant or unpleasant impulse from the environment?

The notion is that, in general in the arts, the brain works based on simulations. For example, something as realistic as a photograph is ultimately a simulation of a reality that it recreates through vision; practically the same can be said of other artistic expressions.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer considered that it is not that music evokes joy, jubilation, sadness, despair, pride, etc., but that it constitutes these emotions. Surprisingly, a series of sounds structured in a certain way constitutes a feeling.

Music represents emotion from a physical point of view: the sequence and combination of musical notes, the rhythms, timbres, and so on, closely emulate the neurophysiological pattern of the emotion itself. There is no recorded civilization or human culture that does not cultivate and express it because it is emotion incarnate.

The one that moves and "makes the subject's skin crawl" stimulates the "reward network", made up of a series of nuclei located in the deepest part of the frontal lobe that is directly activated by highly gratifying stimuli, such as a pleasurable food, orgasm or an addictive drug.

In studies conducted by the Neuroscience of Music group at UNAM, researchers found that pleasant music also activates the left hemisphere of the brain -where the language areas are located- and that in right-handed subjects, 90 percent of the population, it is the one that governs manual dominance or dexterity (ability).

When you identify a melody and you are familiar with it, it is as if it were a language that you know. Then you can enjoy it because it has grammatical characteristics that are recognized and this involves the dominant brain hemisphere, the linguistic one. The unpleasant ones activate more the right hemisphere of the brain, which implies that the melodic sequence heard is unknown.