How Music Plays Your Brain

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
5 min readSep 24, 2018
Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash

Listening to music can be a euphoric experience. It’s unclear exactly why it should feel so good. Is there some evolutionary advantage to enjoying music? Is it a byproduct of some other important function? Is it just one big accident in our evolutionary history? The debate still rages on these questions, but there is one important fact that we can be confident about: music has some deep-rooted appeal for humans.

There is something special about music even for the youngest listeners. Infants in their first year of life already have a meaningful sense of musical timing and pitch. When listening to samples of Western music, Mafa populations in Cameroon recognize the same basic emotions of happiness, sadness, and fear that Westerners do. Both populations also enjoy a similar sense of musical harmony when they listen to each other’s music. When asked to express different emotions by creating musical or physical movement patterns in a computer program, participants in the USA and a tribal village in Cambodia make very similar choices. There is a fundamental core to musical experience and expression that all humans seem to share.

We can look beyond humans to examine how deep our musical roots really stretch. In addition to the cross-cultural appeal of music, there may be a cross-species appeal. There are ongoing discussions about exactly how much our perception of music overlaps with that of non-human primates. Although there are commonalities in our ability to detect rhythms, it is still unclear whether monkeys can synchronize their movements with music in the way that humans can. Some non-human primates, like Kuni the bonobo, may spontaneously synchronize with audible rhythms when they play with a drum. But we need to wait for more evidence to fully understand whether non-human primates enjoy dancing as much as we do.

Non-human primates, just like humans, do prefer consonant music over atonal or dissonant music. However, researchers have often struggled to find any consistent preference for music over silence when non-human primates can choose between them. In 2014, one research group decided to test this question in a little more detail, by trying a range of different musical styles. They divided a room into four zones, which progressively increased in distance from a music speaker playing either West African akan, North Indian…

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: