Exploring Music's Complexities

The Neuroscience of Music

Music Can Serve as a Neurobiological Tool


Science tells us music is one of the most powerful neurobiological tools we have.  As far back as Aristotle, music has been credited with the ability to create a positive influence and to motivate.  It is also credited with the reason we reflect and think rationally (1).  Today one of the things Science is researching is the use of music as a means to enhance the effects of dopamine on the human body’s responses. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain.  It’s the chemical that nudges us into doing things.

Studies reveal humans are wired to interpret and react emotionally to a piece of music.  These reactions also appear to intensify as we grow (2).  Several studies found that listening to music releases the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain and sends pleasure signals to the rest of the body.  In individuals who were tested for their response to their favorite pieces, one of the first things noted is that music triggers the release of dopamine in the dorsal and ventral striatum of the brain creating a feeling of pleasure (2).

To demonstrate this psychological principle, the musicologist Leonard Meyer, in his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), analyzed the 5th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Meyer wanted to show how music is defined by its flirtation with – but not submission to – our expectations of order.

According to Meyer, “it is the suspenseful tension of music (arising out of our unfulfilled expectations) that is the source of the music’s feeling. While earlier theories of music focused on the way a noise can refer to the real world of images and experiences (its “connotative” meaning)

Meyer argued that the emotions we find in music come from the unfolding events of the music itself. This “embodied meaning” arises from the patterns the symphony invokes and then ignores, from the ambiguity it creates inside its own form. “For the human mind,” Meyer writes, “such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. “(1)

The implications of these findings are enormous.  Given the importance of maintaining adequate dopamine in the body, music has a key role in treating or delaying disorders such Parkinson’s disease and autism spectrum disorder (3,4).



  1. Kelsey Korman. Finding Happiness through Music.  https://bearmarketreview.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/finding-happiness-through-music/.
  2. Lehrer, Jonah. The Neuroscience of Music.  https://www.wired.com/2011/01/the-neuroscience-of-music/
  3. Janen, Thenille, Thaut, Michael H. Rethinking the role of music in the neurodevelopment of autism spectrum disorder.  Music & Science, vol 1:1-18, Sage Publications.
  4. Morelli, Jim. Music Helps Movement, Mood in Parkinson’s Patients.  www.webmd.com/…/music-helps-parkinsons-patients


















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