How does music affect your brain?

african american woman listening to music on the subway
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Many people listen to music while working, exercising at the gym, or simply relaxing. But how does music affect your brain?

Along with triggering a release of the feel-good hormone dopamine, science has shown that listening to music may boost our cognitive function, potentially relieve symptoms of anxiety and stress, and help us to stay focused. It's no wonder that many of us choose to listen to music before, during and after workouts. To get the most out of that listening experience, check out our list of the best running headphones.

"When you hear a song, your auditory cortex — the part of your brain responsible for processing sound — is activated," Desiree Silverstone (opens in new tab), a psychotherapist based in London, England, told Live Science. "This activates other areas of your brain, including the limbic system — responsible for emotion — and the motor cortex, which controls movement." 

Silverstone added that as more areas of the brain are activated, we may start to feel the effects of the music. If you're listening to fast-paced music, for example, you may start to feel more alert and energetic. If you're listening to relaxing music, you may start to feel calmer and more relaxed.

Cognitive performance

How many times have you remembered the lyrics to a song, but couldn't recall what you did over the weekend? Music goes a lot further than just filling a void. In a 2008 study, published in the journal Perception and Motor Skills (opens in new tab), researchers discovered that rhythm with or without musical accompaniment may be able to "facilitate recall of text", meaning listening to music could help us to remember pieces of information.

In addition, a 2010 study in Perceptual and Motor Skills (opens in new tab) found that music may be able to improve our cognitive function outside the context of memory tasks. The experiment, which tasked 56 male and female university students with completing a linguistic and spatial processing task while listening to 10 excerpts of Mozart symphonies, found that background music was linked to an increase in the speed of spatial processing (how fast we recognize the shapes, patterns and positions of objects) and the accuracy of linguistic processing (our ability to process words).

Asian woman listing to music as she walks

(Image credit: Getty Images)

But why is this? According to a 2007 study published in the journal Aging Clinical and Experimental Research (opens in new tab), this improvement in our brain function could be explained by the "arousal-and-mood hypothesis." The hypothesis asserts that music enhances our level of arousal, meaning how awake and alert we feel, and this puts us at an optimal level to enhance memory recall. In particular, the theory suggests that adding entertaining auditory backgrounds makes a learning task more interesting and therefore increases the learner's overall level of arousal.

Anxiety and depression

According to a 2017 review published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology (opens in new tab), music may be beneficial in reducing symptoms of depression. In 26 out of 28 studies the researchers analyzed, there was a significant reduction in depression levels over time in the groups that listened to music compared to the control groups that didn't. In particular, older individuals (without a specific condition) showed improvements when they listened to music or participated in music therapy. Music therapy can involve listening to, playing, composing, or interacting with music.

According to psychotherapist Jordan Vyas-Lee (opens in new tab), co-founder of the Kove Clinic, a therapy clinic in London, England, listening to upbeat or happy music can help to light up neural networks that store positive and personal memories. "This is the sort of information that gets blocked during bouts of depression and which needs unlocking to stimulate problem solving skills and adaptive, positive behavioral repertoires," Vyas-Lee told Live Science.

Psychotherapist Jordan Vyas Lee
Jordan Vyas-Lee

Vyas-Lee is a psychotherapist and the clinical director of Kove Clinic in London, England. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Birmingham, England, and postgraduate studies at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, and University College London.

Vyas-Lee emphasized that music alone is unlikely to "cure" depression, but it "can act as an aid to recovery." 

A 2022 review published in the journal Musicae Scientiae (opens in new tab) found that listening to music had a significant effect on alleviating diagnosed anxiety in a range of groups. The most common "session time" was 30 minutes, said the authors, although they suggested comparing different durations would be useful for drawing further conclusions as to how long one must listen to music to experience anxiety relief. 

Stress

Prolonged periods of stress can wreak havoc on your body. But just like yoga, meditation and exercise, experts say that listening to music can also lower physical and psychological stress. 

Music "fundamentally affects the release of neurochemicals in the brain, increasing the release of serotonin and dopamine and reducing the effects of cortisol," Vyas-Lee said. He pointed to a 2015 study published in the journal The Lancet (opens in new tab) that showed how listening to music before, during and after surgery reduced pain and stress associated with medical procedure. 

"But evidence here is patchy," he cautioned. Based on the current evidence, it seems that "music stimulates physiological and psycho-emotional responses, opening up brain pathways that link to positive memories and feelings, in turn reducing stress."

Caucasian woman running to music

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Dopamine production

Dopamine is a signaling molecule that acts as a chemical messenger in the nervous system and as a hormone that can affect many tissues in the body;  it performs many roles in the body, but is best known for its association with feelings of pleasure and happiness. And according to Silverstone, music can trigger the release of this feel-good hormone. 

"When dopamine levels rise, we feel good and our mood improves," she told Live Science. "Dopamine is also involved in the brain's reward system, which explains why we often feel pleasure when listening to music."

A 2019 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (opens in new tab) appears to support this mechanism. Researchers orally administered a dopamine precursor (levodopa), a dopamine antagonist (risperidone), and a placebo (lactose) to three different groups who were tasked with listening to 10 pop songs and five of their favorite musical excerpts . They found that the dopamine precursor, levodopa, compared with placebo, increased the body's pleasure responses. Those given the dopamine antagonist experienced a reduction of both. 

The negative effects of music

It's been shown that music can improve our frame of mind, but it can also lower our mood — especially when we are already in a negative state of mind. In a 2019 article published in the Psychology of Music (opens in new tab), researchers found that 17% of all participants taking part in the experiment reported feeling sadder as a consequence of listening to sad music when they were already feeling low. However, 74% of participants were not saddened by sad music. 

"Listening to sad or anger-filled music for too long can increase the release of cortisol and stimulate brain areas associated with negative emotion," said Vyas-Lee." It can even switch on the threat detection systems in the brain.

"How somebody listens to music, how they interact with their choice of music, and how repeatedly they listen to a certain music type is probably key in the resulting effects on their emotional health."

This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.

Becks Shepherd

Becks is a freelance journalist and writer writing for a range of titles including Stylist, The Independent and LiveScience covering lifestyle topics such as health and fitness, homes and food. She also ghostwrites for a number of Physiotherapists and Osteopaths. When she’s not reading or writing, you’ll find her in the gym, learning new techniques and perfecting her form.