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Piano playing: science vs. psychology, Part 1

Ever since I started this blog I've felt that it would be a good idea to share with you a few chapters from a project I wrote a little while ago. I'm sure it will feel very much at home here. Since it is a university thesis you may find it a bit more formal and scientific, especially today's part, than my usual posts. But the content and the conclusions are really worth getting through it (modestly speaking ;D) so I hope you won't get easily discouraged!

The project will appear in a few parts in turns with the continuation of our series about stress and other random posts - so that every one of you can find something interesting here! Today, it's going to be all about the brain and what happens in it in response to musical sounds. You will learn why remembering is so important, which parts of your brains make you feel emotions when you hear music and, last but not least, what exactly music and sex have in common. The next post will be even more intriguing because we will dive straight into the issue of music and pleasure. Curious enough? ;)

Let's get it started then!

When physics meets psychology

Human beings are very special creatures. We are superior over other species in many aspects thanks to the level of our brains’ development. One of the most fascinating human characteristics is the way our sense of hearing evolved. The nature did not equip us with the most responsive ear out of all the living organisms but gave our brains a unique skill of putting auditory signals together and interpreting them not only as pieces of information, but also as triggers of certain emotions. This transition of sound from outer physics phenomenon to inner psychological experience is the essence of music.

As a pianist and at the same time a big enthusiast of science I have always been fascinated by this process. What actually happens in our brains that makes us cry when we listen to some musical pieces? Why is a certain set of sound waves interpreted by our brains as beautiful? To what extent is the perception of music objectively determined by physics phenomena and to what degree is it shaped by psychological aspects of different personalities? In the following project I try to answer these and many more questions connected with the mutual penetration of physics and psychology in the world of music.

Music and the Brain

From a scientific point of view sound is nothing more than a vibration of molecules. Hitting one another they create a so-called wave which spreads in space until the source energy is used up. Astonishingly, in human’s brain this phenomenon evokes a reaction of an utterly non-physics nature. Inside our heads, science mysteriously transforms to psychology – the experience of hearing a sound. ‘Where the physicist finds energy,the psychologist finds information’ (1).

The fact that evolution equipped us with an ability to detect and interpret sound signals from our surrounding does not seem surprising. This gave us advantage over other species and hence bigger chance to survive; for example, enabling us to hear a hunting predator or an approaching storm. However, why did human brain evolve to the capability of connecting sounds, giving them a certain time and dynamics relation, forming and recognizing melodies, sensing harmonic tensions and rhythmic order – it remains a matter of speculations. Irrespective of the purpose, the evolution’s gift of creating and processing music might have been one of the most enriching for human nature and as musicians we cannot be grateful enough for it.

Let us analyze this storm which music stirs up in human brains. About twenty different regions, among them four main ones responsible for movement, planning, attention and memory, get activated when we listen to music– significantly more than is involved in processing the average noise and other sounds from our environment (2). But how does the whole process look like step by step?

Air molecules vibrations (sound waves) are collected by our ears, which then transform mechanical signals into electrical ones. Those signals first reach the so-called primary auditory cortex, which is responsible for the primary analysis of sounds – they get broken down into basic parameters like pitch, timbre, location, amplitude etc. After this categorization two other parts of brain get activated: cerebellum and cerebrum. The former is mainly involved in motor actions of body, such as reflex, balance and skeletal muscle movement. When it comes to processing music, it is responsible for coordinating the body while playing the instrument and for the sense of rhythm. The main function of the latter concerns cooperation with hippocampus, the bank of our memories. The exchange of information between these two brain regions is a crucial part of a whole process. Without reference to previous notes in a phrase we would not be able to develop a sense of melody. With no recollection of previous parts of a piece we would not understand its entire construction. Hence, this part of the process puts musical features into a perceptual whole. There is more to it than that. According to neuroscientist researches, ‘only the most basic mechanisms for recognizing individual sounds are <hard wired> into our nervous systems. Every other aspect of listening is partly or entirely conditioned by learning' (3). This means that without cooperation between cerebrum and hippocampus (and all the previously acquired knowledge) we would generally never be able to experience music in the full meaning of this word. Another region of brain that strongly contributes to the full experience of music is the limbic system – the part responsible for emotions. This is where the most unexplained and fascinating processes take place. As Daniel Levitin, a famous neuroscientist, the author of the best-selling book ‘This is your brain on music’, stated: ‘music can be thought of as a type of perceptual illusion in which our brain imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds. Just how this structure leads us to emotional reactions is part of the mysteryof music!’(4).

Unable to answer the question why music triggers certain combinations of neurons responsible for emotions, scientists have managed to examine exactly which of them get activated. In 2008 Marcel Zentner and Klaus Scherer ran a test on a group of volunteers in order to name ‘music-specific’ emotions. As a result, they ended up with a group of nine states which people claimed to experience while listening to music: sadness, joy, tension (fear or worry), nostalgia, wonder, power, tenderness, peacefulness and transcendence. However, music goes even further. Other researches proved that when people hear a particularly liked piece, and especially its climax, their brains respond with production of a ‘feel good’ hormone– dopamine. It is involved in a ‘reward’ system and a feeling of pleasure; it typically gets released as a reaction to food and sex. In correlation with dopamine’s appearance, scientists noticed a decrease in action of the so-called amygdala, the part of brain involved in negative feelings such as fear and anxiety (5).

Music and Pleasure

We have just followed a long way that a sound signal has to go to be transformed from ‘meaningless’ molecules vibrations to a trigger of pleasure. In the next paragraph, I will look more closely into the feeling of delight itself. What exactly do we enjoy in music? Why our preferences differ? Does ‘the absolute beauty’ defined by physical laws exist or is every parameter of our perception determined psychologically? I will write about three basic factors that determine the feeling of pleasure: change, familiarity and a positive response to our anticipations. On the example of music we will be able to observe how science and psychology work hand in hand in all areas of our lives.


1 R. Jourdain, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997, p. 2 2 L. Bushak, This Is Your Brain On Music: How Our Brains Process Melodies That Pull On Our Heartstrings, 2014, Retrieved from: heartstrings-271007

3 R. Jourdain, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997, p. 5 4 D.J.Levitin, This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science Of A Human Obsession, Penguin, New York 2006, p.12 5 P. Vuilleumier, Department of Neuroscience, University of Geneva, Musical Emotions in the Brain, Retrieved from

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