Music and your brain: Scientists seek to understand how your memory of music affects your brain
11/16/2018 // Michelle Simmons // Views

A team of researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EFPL) discovered how the memory of music affects the brain. The EFPL team carried out the study through the use of EFPL's Defitech Foundation Chair in Human-Machine Interface (CNBI) to look at how the brain works when imaginary music is played in the head.

In cooperation with a team of scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, the EFPL team analyzed the brain activities of an epileptic patient who was also an experienced pianist to examine the brain activity produced when a song is actually playing and when a song is being played mentally. According to Stéphanie Martin, lead author of the study and a doctoral student with the CNBI, they used the method known as electrocorticography, which involves inserting electrodes into the participant's brain. This technique is also traditionally used to treat people with epilepsy who cannot take medication. Moreover, the electrodes can calculate brain activity with a very high spatial and temporal resolution which is necessary as nerve cells respond quickly.

However, Martin said the "recording technique is invasive, and the technology needs to be more advanced for us to be able to measure brain activity with greater accuracy."

For the first task, the researchers asked the participant to play a piece of music on an electric piano with the sound turned on. At the same time, they recorded the participant's brain activity and the music being played. For the second task, they asked the participant to play the same musical piece, but with the sound of the piano turned off. The brain activity of the participant and the music were also recorded. In the second task, the music was from the patient's memory and the notes could not be heard.


Results showed that there was not much difference between the two, when the brain activities were compared. The findings, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, revealed that the brain does not differentiate actual music from imaginary music. The researchers identified the areas in the brain that was covered by the electrodes according to their role in the process and their responses to both audible and imaginary sounds. The researchers believe that this study can contribute to the development of ways to bring back the ability of speech of people who have lost it.

“We are at the very early stages of this research,” explained Martin. “Language is a much more complicated system than music: linguistic information is non-universal, which means it is processed by the brain in a number of stages.”

Furthermore, the researchers hope that these findings will help people with aphasia and other individuals who are unable to speak to talk again by reading their internal speech and recreating it vocally.

The benefits of music to the brain

It has been known that music affects the brain beneficially. According to an article by, music can do the following:

  • Music can enhance mood and work performance. It can make you happier and more productive. Moreover, listening to upbeat music can improve your mood.

  • Music can boost brain chemicals, such as the neurotransmitter dopamine. This brain chemical plays a role in the pleasure-reward system and is often referred to as the brain's motivation molecule.

  • Music can help a person learn. Studies showed that music can increase a person's language development, increase IQ, improve test scores, increase brain connectivity, and increase spatial intelligence. (Related: Music boosts your brain power by literally altering its structure as you learn new skills.)

Learn more about memory and the different processes happening in your brain at

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