©Arlene R. Taylor PhD


Your brain is the most complex structure in the universe with potentially as many interconnections as there are atoms in the universe. The way in which it works largely determines your quality of life including your level of health, accomplishments, and long-term success. As unique as your individual thumbprint, your brain creates your world, perceptions, beliefs, reactions, responses, and behaviors.

The brain, along with the body, makes up what is commonly referred to as the mind; that vast electrical-chemical-psychosomatic network that may be one of the last great frontiers for exploration. There is a subconscious mind and a conscious mind. This is really another way of saying that while you are paying attention to one idea or event in our conscious awareness, a great many other things are going on simultaneously outside your conscious awareness.

In all aspects of music perception, several portions of the brain come into play. In adulthood, the brain weights 3-4 pounds and contains 100 billion neurons, each of which functions as a sophisticated computer. Ounce for ounce, it is the 3rd most consumptive of energy in the body after the heart and lungs. Approximately 20% of the blood flow and oxygen go to the brain, and the brain consumes 22% of one’s total caloric intake.


The human brain begins to develop very soon after conception. Studies by Dr. Tomatis of France have shown that a great deal of learning can take place during gestation. By the 5th month of gestation the fetus can recognize melodies it has heard before, can recognize voices, and experience emotions. Neonates (birth to 30 days) turn toward musical sounds. Following are examples correlated with age.

  • 1 month - can distinguish between tones of different frequency
  • 2 months - can replicate pitch and the melodic content of your mother’s (care provider’s) songs
  • 6 months - can respond to changes in melodic content
  • 6-12 months - the frontal lobes of the thinking brain begin to develop at about 6 months of age. By 12 months of age the frontal lobes are beginning to gain control over the subconscious drives of the emotional brain.
  • 12-18 months - can exhibit a form of spontaneous singing (e.g., babbling), Wernicke’s area becomes active at about 18 months of age and then Broca’s Area kicks in.
  • 24-36 months - can move the body to rhythms, but usually display little accuracy until age 6
  • 3-4 years - begin duplicating the music of our own culture
  • 7-8 years - begin to understand relative consonance and dissonance (sense of near and far keys)
  • 10 years - can follow 2 parallel voices and can recognize cadences
  • 12 years - begin to develop full harmonic comprehension (if we develop it)
  • 10-12 years (adolescence) - begin to imprint a preferred musical style

Multiple Brain Layers

The human brain actually consists of several interconnecting brains, sometimes described with differing labels. Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently, refers to these brains as layers, as do some others. Each layer is known for distinct functions, though all functional systems constantly interact. These brain layers can be compared to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd gears in a vehicle.

  • musicNeocortex or 3rd gear  – composed of two cerebral hemispheres, this portion of the brain orchestrates conscious rational/logical thought including executive functions and the processing/expressing of emotions
  • Mammalian Layer or 2nd gear  – composed of several small brain organs, this portion includes the pain/pleasure center, some memory functions, and the surfacing of emotional impulse
  • Reptilian Layer or 1st gear  – composed of the brain stem and cerebellum, this portion houses instinctual responses, reflexes, and fight-or-flight reactions

Living life in its fullness requires the ability to integrate the functions of these brains smoothly, accurately, and efficiently. It also requires integration of the four natural divisions of the cerebrum (e.g., a lack of integration has been associated with Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID).


NOTE: Music is thought to enter the body through the hypothalamus, a portion of the emotional brain layer that receives stimuli related to emotions, sensations, and feelings. Music can bypass the thinking brain layer, the portion of the brain that involves reason, decision-making, and conscious thought. Human beings apparently do not decide or choose consciously the effects that music has on the brain and body. This occurs involuntarily.

Musically, the reptilian layer contributes functions to accomplish a variety of musical activities, such as:

  • Localization of sounds through linked input from both ears
  • Observing relations within sounds (e.g., rising in volume or frequency)
  • Testing for differences in sound (e.g., helps to identify individual sounds)
  • Triggering automatic, ritualistic behaviors under stress (e.g., stressful practice, lesson, or performance situations)

Musically, the Mammalian layer:

  • Plays a significant role in transferring information from short-term to long-term memory, and in searching the brain to collect pieces of information to reconstruct and recall a "memory"
  • Interprets sound emotionally
  • May have more connectors to the right cerebral hemisphere so be more aware emotionally
  • May stimulate the rise of emotional impulses in response to musical activities (music most affects those individuals who already have a deep emotional existence)

Musically, functions in the neocortex:

  • Decodes sounds into something that has meaning; plays a role in one's perception of music and in its significance to the individual; appreciates the music cognitively, including symbolic interpretations that are very individualistic
  • Enables one to set and achieve musical goals, including anticipating and planning musical activities
  • May motivate people to create new music, or arrange existing music in a new way
  • Allows one to create fantasies, to imagine, and to innovate using music; carries a sense of reflection and connection that can extend beyond the concrete material world into the abstract world
  • Identifies emotions/feelings triggered by the music; manages (or does not manage) the emotional impulses triggered by the sounds
  • Provides executive functions that direct one's musical life
musicLeft Hemisphere

Typically, the left hemisphere is concerned with modeling relations between events across time. In its role as a temporal sequencer, the left hemisphere specializes in not just the grammatical transformations of language, but also trains of analytical thinking, successions of complex physical movements, and the perception and generation of rhythmic patterns. It decodes rhythmic patterns more easily than does the right.

The left hemisphere seems particularly important for so-called fast acoustic processing, which would tell a listener whether, for example, a note was being bowed on a violin, or plucked on a guitar, struck on a keyboard, or blown on a woodwind.

Right Hemisphere

The right hemisphere favors relations between simultaneously occurring events. It is expert at modeling spatial relations, body position, and the relations among concurrent sounds, including musical chords. These right-brained skills focus on assembling pieces into an instantaneous whole. The right hemisphere takes over in slow acoustic processing, appreciating the notes following the initial attack note.

Analytical functions that subserve language and that are housed in the left hemisphere are utilized in performing and writing music. Studies show that professional musicians have acquired additional left-hemisphere skills for analyzing melody as compared to amateurs or nonmusicians. The right hemisphere of the brain is still active, but the left hemisphere is bolstered almost to the point of analytical dominance. Professional musicians also tend to have superior memory for melody recognition due to an increased mental library. They don’t do any better than nonmusician listeners, however, when presented with melodies from unfamiliar musical traditions.


Has science identified a music center in the brain devoted strictly to music cognition? According to Dr. Mark Jude Tramo, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, the answer is no. His studies have led him to believe that all neural structures that participate in the musical experience are players in other forms of cognition as well. For example, a region called the left planum temporale, which is critical for perfect pitch, is also involved in language processing. And though the right hemisphere of the brain traditionally has been considered the music hemisphere, recent neuroimaging studies from his and other laboratories reveal a more subtle interplay between the left and right halves of the brain in the course of a musical experience.

A study by researchers at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, has suggested that recalling that melody is accomplished through the rostromedial prefrontal cortex. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which detects the part of the brain active in response to specific stimuli, they found that the ability to recognize music is contained in a centrally located area just behind the forehead. However, the brains of each of the subjects tracked the sounds in a slightly different way each time the music was played. This may be the reason the same music, in different times, may prompt different emotions.

Downshifting and Music

Metaphorically compare the three functional brain layers to a vehicle with an automatic transmission. When the going gets tough the transmission automatically moves to a lower gear to help you get through. A similar situation can occur in the brain. This helps to explain why children who experience chronic or severe short-term stress can regress and begin to exhibit survival behaviors related to the action brain. This phenomenon is not limited to children. It can happen to humans of any age.

In situations of threat, trauma, crisis, or any type of fear (e.g., death of a family member, severe illness/hospitalization, excessive adapting) the brain tends to downshift and access responses/reactions that are perceived to be safer. Frequent or prolonged downshifting of the brain may accelerate the aging process. When downshifted you may:

  • React more automatically (reflexively, instinctually) and be resistant to change
  • Follow old learned beliefs and behaviors regardless of information available in the present
  • Experience a reduced ability to take environmental and internal cues into consideration
  • Be less able to engage in complex intellectual tasks, especially those requiring creativity and the ability to engage in open-ended thinking and questioning
  • Become somewhat phobic (e.g., specific stimuli can trigger inappropriate or exaggerated responses)
  • Be prevented from learning and / or generating solutions for new problems
  • Fail to see interconnectedness or interrelations
  • Experience altered immune system function and brain chemistry
  • Accelerate the aging process, especially if downshifting is prolonged or becomes chronic

Learn to recognize symptoms of downshifting quickly and when it occurs, get back up to 3rd gear as quickly as possible. A brain that has downshifted may exhibit diminished capability temporarily for some of the functions related to music that reside in the thinking brain layer. This can interfere with creativity, innovation, decision-making, composition, arranging, performing, learning, and management of stress/emotions/feelings, to name just a few

Knowing this you can try to minimize stress whenever possible during musical lessons, in practice sessions, as well as performance situations. For example, try to avoid the use of why questions that tend to be perceived as stressful and that can trigger downshifting. Instead, try asking:

  • If you exhibit this behavior what do you think might happen?
  • If you make this choice what are the possible consequences?
  • What do you want to have happen in this situation?