• Emma Chow

What Happens in Your Brain When You Listen to Music?

Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash

We’ve all heard of the Mozart effect as a musical phenomenon that supposedly increases brain activity and makes its listeners smarter. Recent studies that analyze the neurological activity within individuals with Alzheimer’s proved differently.

Recent studies have shown that Alzheimer’s patients respond better to music they grew up with. When we listen to our favorite songs, different parts of the brain will light up. This indicates how memories that we associate with songs are considered emotional memories.¹ Which never fade, even with those with Alzheimer’s.

Within a theoretical framework proposed by Juslin and Västfiäli (2008), the authors presented a framework on how music evokes emotions. This framework consists of six mechanisms²:

  1. Brain stem reflex

  2. Evaluate conditioning

  3. Emotional contagion

  4. Visual imagery

  5. Episodic memory

  6. Musical expectancy

Then in 2013, rhythmic entrapment and aesthetic judgement were added.³

Juslin and Västfiäli's framework was initially proposed as a mechanism for emotional responses. Therefore most of the empirical studies that have been conducted have focused on how the phenomenon relates to emotion.

Recent behavioral and neuro-imaging research have provided strong evidence for the link between emotions, mind wandering, and visual mental imagery. In Taruffi et al.'s study (2017), 216 participants were asked to listen to a variety of instrumental music excerpts.

These musical pieces were designed to evoke emotions of sadness and happiness. Participants were then asked to report their level and form of mind wandering. The two forms of mind wandering are visual imagery and inner language.

The results indicated that sad music (compared with happy music) was associated with higher levels of mind-wandering. In addition, there was also stronger activity within the brain's default mode network (DMN). The DMN becomes activated when we don’t focus on our external world. Interoception, retrieving autobiographical memories, and imagining the future are a few processes that activate the DMN.

Compared with inner language, visual mental imagery occurred more frequently for both sad and happy music conditions. This points to a strong link between visual mental imagery and music processing.

Overall, these findings demonstrate how mind-wandering levels (and DMN activity) can be moderated with emotional evoked music. It also shows that regardless of the emotional experience, musically evoked mind-wandering is a visual phenomenon.

In 2018, researchers from Shaanxi Normal University wanted to study the impact of pop music on cognitive neurobehavioral plasticity. Throughout the experiment, the researchers utilized event-related potential technology. This refers to the reaction that is specifically generated and detected within a certain timeframe of the stimulus.

This study selected 250 adolescents as their research target group. They studied the impact of music training on cognitive functions, influence characteristics, brain structure, and brain functional connection.

Participants were studied throughout the different stages of the process. The study analyzed their first language, second language, and math scores. It also studied the relationship between long-term popular music training and academic performance.

The results indicated that pop music training not only allows adolescents to acquire musical skill and musical knowledge, but it also had a significant effect on their cerebral neural development. It was also found that those who participated in music training were significantly better than non-musical adolescents at learning a second language.

A comparative study was also conducted to analyze learning and memory. The musical adolescents had performance within a shorter timeframe. This indicates that music training played a positive role in the improvement of learning and memory ability.¹⁰

In 2019, Day and Thompson created three different design experiments to shed light on the relationship between music, visual imagery, and emotion. Their goal was to examine the relationship between visual imagery and the amount of time it took to perceive an emotional response.

Within their first experiment, they showed that the majority of listeners in their experiment experience an emotion before seeing any images in their mind.¹¹ This suggests that, for some listeners, visual imagery is not the primary cause of an emotional response during music listening. The results of experiment 2 and 3 provided evidence that musical excerpts that we find familiar and are easily processed will lead to visual imagery at a faster pace.¹²

Küssner and Eerola (2019) furthered the research by questioning the frequency of visual imagery and the kinds of imagery that were being formed. They developed a 24 item questionnaire on music and visual imagery.

It was revealed that visual imagery is a common phenomenon that occurs at least once by 77% of the participants.¹³ There are differences between musically trained and untrained minds though. Imageries are often related to autobiographical events.¹⁴

These are memories that have been coherently formed into a story. They differ from other forms of memory because:¹⁵

  1. It relies on autobiographical consciousness. This usually emerges by the age of two.

  2. It is formed throughout different social interactions. This means that multiple skills are utilized to construct coherent stories of one self. This aids in the process of forming an identity in the adolescent years.

  3. Throughout the developmental process, autobiographical memories begin to define the self and how one will regulate his or her emotions.

This is important to note as it emphasizes the issue of distinguishing between visual imagery and episodic memories as potential causes for music-induced emotions. Other images often reported by their participants include landscapes, people dancing, or making music, as well as abstract shapes, objects, and colors.

The results suggested that both musically trained and untrained listeners use visual mental imagery to relax. But musically trained individuals will also use imagery to feel more energized and excited.¹⁶

Even though the psychological and physiological effects of music is a relatively new field of study, it has shown great progression and benefits. Besides improvements in learning and memory, it also increases brain plasticity. This greatly aids in the ability for growth and reorganization within the neural networks. So next time you need to relax, put on some of your favorite tunes and allow your brain to rejuvenate.

If you are interested in seeing how our brain waves react to music, check out this link!



  1. Fang, R., Ye, S., Huangfu, J., & Calimag, D. P. (2017). Music therapy is a potential intervention for cognition of Alzheimer's Disease: a mini-review. Translational neurodegeneration, 6, 2. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40035-017-0073-9

  2. Juslin, P. N., & Västfjäll, D. (2008). Emotional Responses to Music: The Need to Consider Underlying Mechanisms. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(5), 559-575; discussion 575-621. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X08005293

  3. Juslin, P. N. (2013). From everyday emotions to aesthetic emotions: Toward a unified theory of musical emotions. Physics of Life Reviews, 10(3). doi: 10.1016/j.plrev.2013.05.008

  4. Taruffi, L., & Küssner, M. B. (2019). A review of music-evoked visual mental imagery: Conceptual issues, relation to emotion, and functional outcome. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind and Brain, 29(2-3), 62-74. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1037/pmu0000226

  5. Taruffi, L., Pehrs, C., Skouras, S. et al. (2017). Effects of Sad and Happy Music on Mind-Wandering and the Default Mode Network. Sci Rep 7, 14396. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-14849-0

  6. Ekhtiari, H., Nasseri, P., Yavari, F., Mokri, A., & Monterosso, J. (2015, December 19). Neuroscience of drug craving for addiction medicine: From circuits to therapies. Retrieved October 18, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0079612315001909

  7. Ibid.

  8. Yu, L. (2018). Brain evoked potential analysis of effects of popular music training on adolescents' cognitive neurobehavioral plasticity. NeuroQuantology, 16(5) doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.14704/nq.2018.16.5.1424

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Day, R. A., & Thompson, W. F. (2019). Measuring the onset of experiences of emotion and imagery in response to music. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 29, 75–89. https://doi.org/10.1037/pmu0000220

  12. Ibid.

  13. Küssner, M. B., Eerola, T., & Fujioka, T. (2019). Music, emotion, and visual imagery: Where are we now? Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 29(2-3), 59-61. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pmu0000245

  14. Ibid.

  15. Fivush, R., & Graci, M. (2017, July 19). Autobiographical Memory. Retrieved October 18, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128093245210468

  16. Ibid.