©Arlene R. Taylor, PhD

Researchers at the Dartmouth's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience studied the brains of musicians as they listened to original music. The research subjects had studied music for at least 12 years. The functional MRI tracked which parts of the brain were active as the subjects listened to music and tried to pick out specific tones and detect notes played by a flute-like instrument (as separate from a clarinet).

A portion of the brain known as the rostromedial prefrontal cortex in the cerebrum appears to be involved in one’s ability to remember music and recall a melody. This part of the brain can even identify a wrong note in the midst of a familiar tune.

Interestingly enough, the researchers reported that 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, at different times or in differing situations, may trigger different emotions.

Each cerebral division manages functions that have application to musical activities, although specific functions may be developed and/or located somewhat differently in individual brains. You can develop and utilize functions from all four cerebral modes by choice, although the way in which you approach music and the amount of energy you expend will differ based on your innate giftedness (brain lead). Following are examples of functional characteristics of each cerebral division and their potential application to music.

Left Frontal Lobebrain lead

The Left Frontal Lobe is sometimes called the mathematical mode, although both frontal modes are involved with math (e.g., the Left Frontal Lobe with algebra, arithmetic, statistics, and part of calculus; the Right Frontal Lobe with geometry, trigonometry, and parts of calculus).

Individuals with a preference for using this mode may prefer mathematical music (e.g., counterpoint, music of the classical masters). Functions of the Left Frontal Lobe help one to:

  • Set goals and make decisions about music
  • Understand the functionality of music
  • Analyze musical forms and structures


Right Frontal Lobebrain lead

The Right Frontal Lobe is the musically artistic mode. It enjoys the big picture in music and is willing to adapt to changes in musical liturgy, to innovate, and embrace new musical forms.

Individuals with a preference for using this mode may enjoy music that departs from traditional rules (e.g., dissonance, irregular rhythms). Functions of the Right Frontal Lobe help one to:

  • Compose, improvise, modulate, arrange, and rearrange
  • Enjoy forms of music that do not necessarily follow the rules
  • Risk trying things that may be new and experimental

Left Posterior Lobesbrain lead

These lobes are both developed and called upon during the formal study of music. This mode helps us to understand the building blocks of music (e.g., the form of music including chord structure and time signatures).

Individuals with a preference for using the left posterior loves may prefer music that is traditional and familiar.

Functions of this mode help one to:

  • Be sensitive to rhythm as in counting, or marching, while playing an instrument
  • Develop practice routines
  • Exhibit prestidigitation
  • Develop “labels” for musical functions
  • Pay attention to details in sequence (e.g., sight-reading of music, recall of lyrics)
  • Follow the rules in music
  • Meet practice/performance schedules


Right Posterior Lobesbrain lead

These lobes are the home of nativemusical ability, so-called. This mode loves rhythm (motivates one to tap a foot or finger to rhythmic music).

Individuals with a preference for using the right posterior lobes may prefer relational, emotional, and spiritual music such as gospel songs, romantic music, and music that tells a story (e.g., country and western, blues).

Functions of this mode help one to:

  • Play music by ear
  • Be expressive in musical interpretations
  • Be sensitive to pitch and timbre
  • Recall melody lines
  • Enjoy listening to music (especially music without words)
  • Follow rhythm (e.g., exercising, dancing, performing with a group, especially when improvisation is involved)

Growing up, you may have heard that if something wasn’t difficult to accomplish it probably wasn’t worth doing. That belief is not holding up under the scrutiny of current brain-function research. In fact, the opposite may be true. There is a huge difference between having learned to do something well and doing it energy efficiently. It is the difference between the perception that you’re playing versus working very hard to accomplish a given task. This means that some musical tasks/activities will take more energy to accomplish. Others may be accomplished with minimum expenditures of energy.

Understanding the key characteristics of each thinking style, and the way each interacts with the environment, can help to reduce tension and misunderstanding as well as enhance all your relationships both personal and professional. Indeed, many arguments simply reflect a difference in perspective based on brain lead and thinking style. These differing perspectives are often further complicated or exaggerated by differences in gender, sensory system preference, E:I ratio, self-esteem levels, education, experience, and expectations just to name a few.

Examples of Potential Musical Contributions by the Frontal Lobes

Left Frontal Lobebrain lead

  • Sets goals for studying and analyzing music
  • Breaks goals down into manageable steps
  • Prioritizes activities needed to achieve goals
  • Does first things first when studying music
  • Utilizes willpower to achieve musical goals
  • Abstracts meaning from music
  • Analyzes music for theory, compositional components, purpose, message, and functionality
  • Assigns labels for music and musical signs
  • Directs the Basal Left to store and recall signs
  • Tends to gravitate toward powerful, majestic, mathematical music (e.g., music of the classical masters, anthems)
  • Wants to be in charge of lessons, selection of music, schedules, and performance
  • Plays with control, precision, and power

Right Frontal Lobebrain lead

  • Interested in the big picture musically
  • Envisions change and pursues it
  • Compose, modulate, improvise, innovate
  • Seeks for variety to avoid boredom
  • Risks breaking the rules (e.g., dissonance)
  • Contributes spontaneity and surprise
  • Tends toward unusual/dramatic performance
  • May perform better than might be expected based on previous practice sessions
  • May skip sequential details in exchange for concentrating on the overall performance
  • Dislikes routines (e.g., practicing), yet can lose all track of time if interested in the project
  • Gravitates to new, innovative, unusual music
  • May gesture when listening to music
  • Plays with abandon and can getcarried away


Examples of Potential Musical Contributions by the Posterior Lobes

Left Posterior Lobesbrain lead

  • Learns the building blocks of music (e.g., chord structure, time/key signatures, notes, rests, ornamentation, scales, arpeggios)
  • Recalls musical labels
  • Identifies and names sounds
  • Reads words and musical notations, and translates them into something that has meaning
  • Follows the rules of music (e.g., writing, transposing, composing, harmonizing)
  • Memorizes music precisely
  • Pays attention to details (e.g., counting, key signatures, accidentals, mm guidelines)
  • Learns to sight-read easily (e.g., recognizes and interprets signs for sounds and silence)
  • Conforms to lesson and practice schedules
  • May need written music in order to play
  • Often prefers familiar, traditional music
  • Tends to play with restraint and attention to detail or directions

Right Posterior Lobesbrain lead

  • Likes to talk about the music with others
  • Wants to please (e.g., teacher, audience) and is sensitive to criticism
  • Perceives musical quality (e.g., rhythm, melody)
  • May becomes discouraged easily when the music doesn’t sound right or when makes mistakes
  • Sensitive to the body language of others (e.g., the teacher, other musicians, the audience)
  • Is sensitive to emotions contained in the music
  • Understands symbols in relation to musical expression (e.g., patriotic songs, love songs)
  • May play by ear easily
  • Tends to gravitate toward music that has a melody line and harmonious sounds
  • Often prefers music that tells a story (country and western, blues, gospel) or that is rhythmical (marches, waltzes, swing)
  • May move body to the music (e.g., dance, sway)
  • Tends to play with rhythm, feeling, sensitivity


Sound and Energy

It requires energy expenditures to generate sound. Energy only comes out of a musical instrument when energy goes into it. When you listen to a violin being played, you are hearing energy in the violinist’s muscles transformed into sound. Only about 1% of the energy put into an instrument comes out as sound.

Acoustic power is measured in watts and every instrument has a maximum power output. For example, a violin, flute or clarinet puts out about 1/20 of a watt at its loudest; a tuba puts out 1/5 of a watt; a trumpet, 1/3 of a watt; and a typical piano, almost ½ of a watt. Other instruments put out more such as the trombone at 6 watts, cymbals at 10 watts, and a bass drum at 25 watts.

Based on your giftedness you may find specific musical activities easier or more challenging to master, and more energy-efficient or energy-intensive. While the undamaged brain can probably learn to do most musical activities at some level, it is prudent to capitalize on those aspects that are energy-efficient for one's brain.

It is also important to recognize that it generally requires the development of skills in a given musical activity for one’s potential abilities to be realized and demonstrated. Individuals with a similar brain lead may still have varying potential abilities within those functions. Some possess and express an especial giftedness that is sometimes referred to as virtuosity.