Q: What happens in the brain when you listen to music versus perform music?

A: When you are listening to music, the short answer is a GREAT DEAL! While ears are designed to transmit sound waves, you hear with your brain as it decodes and interprets what the sound waves mean. Multiple areas of your brain are engaged and activated at the same time. Here are six things that happen in the brain when you listen to music:

  • Levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine—the feel better chemical—rise.
  • Levels of the stress hormone cortisol fall—reducing chronic stress.
  • Endorphins that help you feel better also help you cope with pain are released
  • Neuropeptides can improve your mood as you listen to upbeat music.
  • Listening to sad or melancholy music can help you connect with your emotions and help you heal.
  • When you listen to live music, the bonding chemical, oxytocin is released that helps people learn to trust one another.

When you perform music, however, that is a “horse of a different color,” as my father used to say. Performing music engages  almost all areas of the brain at once—especially the portions that process and decode visual, auditory, and motor activity. Anita Collins compared playing an instrument to a full brain-body workout. Brain scans have shown that performing music actively lights up almost the entire brain. It is both complex and amazing. Think of it like a party is going on inside the brain complete with exploding fireworks. In fact, music may be the only known medium that at once activates, stimulates, and engages the entire brain.