How music works in the brain

Music can evoke distinct sensations in each one of us. Some songs allow us to relive our memories and can take us back to our childhood, meanwhile others make us feel excited regardless of the situation. Sometimes we may even feel nostalgia when listening to a specific song or band, and we may even remember people who are no longer around us. 

Considering these sensations that we are all familiar with, have you ever wondered how the act of listening to music is processed by our brains? 

Daniel Levitin, a psychologist, neuroscientist, musician, music producer and the author of the book This Is Your Brain on Music explained in an interview to Globo’s Portal G1: 

“… Each time we listen to a musical pattern that is new to our ears, our brains try to make an association between any visual, hearing or sensory sign. We try to contextualize new sounds and, eventually, create these memory links between a particular set of notes and a certain place, time or set of events”.

This explains the fact that we associate music with moments and people

Daniel also states that music has a direct connection to our brain and stimulates the production of the so-called happiness chemicals, such as serotonin, endorphin, dopamine, oxytocin and prolactin (the latter in pregnant women).  

How the human brain reacts to music 

Carolina Octaviano has a Master’s degree in cognition and philosophy from the Universidade Federal do Paraná (UFPR). In her article, she explains how music is received by our brains

She writes that “once the sound is transmitted by molecules through the air, it reaches the eardrum, which vibrates in or out, according to the breadth and volume of the sound it receives as well as its frequency – that is, whether it is low or high. However, at this stage, the brain receives incomplete information, without a clear understanding or what the noise really represents – whether it is a voice, the wind, machines, etc. The final result, decoded in the brain, represents a mental image of the physical world, which is generated by a long chain of mental events”. 

Carolina explains that the first process of this chain is the “characteristics extraction”, when the brain only perceives music’s basic characteristics through specialized neural networks. “In this stage, the sound is decomposed into basic elements such as frequency, timber, its location in space, intensity, among others. This occurs in the peripheral parts of the brain. The second step occurs in the upper parts of the brain, when the newly-acquired basic information needs to be integrated, therefore obtaining a complete perception.” 

Almost all brain regions are involved when we listen to music 

Carolina states that musical activity involves almost all brain regions as well as neural subsystems.

“When a song is emotionally touching, structures from the instinctive regions of the cerebellar vermis (a cerebellum structure that modulates the production of dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmitters and its release by the brainstem) and the amygdala (the cortex’s emotional processing’s main area). In musical reading, the area used is the visual cortex. The act of following along with a song is able to activate the hippocampus (responsible for memories) and the inferior frontal cortex. For music execution, the frontal lobes are activated – the motor and sensory cortex”. 

:: You can also read: What is homeostasis? ::

Music benefits to the brain 

In an interview to the newspaper O Globo, psychologist Daniel Levitin shares that recent studies have reinforced the notion that listening to music “improves physical and brain health, increases the immunological system function, promotes social bonding even without the presence of other people and improves general well-being”. 

“Actually, we use music to regulate our moods throughout the day, even if we don’t do it intentionally. We choose different songs for working out and having dinner, or relaxing before going to sleep. The neurochemistry of these feelings and moods was attributed to music’s ability to modulate the levels of dopamine, endorphins and opioids in the brain. For example, techno tends to increase stress hormones (cortisol, ACTH, prolactine, growth hormone and norepinephrine), while meditative music reduces them significantly. On the other hand, listening to music we like may affect our well-being hormones”, he explains. 

The relationship between music and neurological development 

The physician and researcher Mauro Muszkat wrote an article in which he shows that music can act as an improving factor for diseases like depression or Alzheimer. Through this statement, he instigates art-educators, musicians and teachers to carry out an exercise of child observation and, along with them, to participate in a “process of language construction, in order to find answers to the kid’s struggles and for their inclusion, both educationally and socially”.

“Music can’t be understood without taking into account the subjectivity, the playful engagement and the transitivity which characterizes art. Music, in any of its dimensions, be that aesthetic, therapeutic or ritualistic, involves the perceptual motor and executive brain functions. Feeling and processing music imply the analysis of the physical and acoustic signs of the air molecules vibrations (sounds) and its decodification in a subjective and complex cultural system. Therefore, physical signs transform into emotional states that reflect expectations, tension, rest and movement as well as cause fluctuations in our endogenous physiological rhythms such as heartbeat, respiratory rate and brain electrical rhythms”, he explains. 

“Listening to music also affects the functioning of our brain. The physiological alterations due to exposure to music are multiple and range from the neurovegetative modulation of variability patterns of heart rate endogenous rhythms, respiratory rhythms, cerebral electrical rhythms, and sleep-wake circadian cycles to the production of several neurotransmitters linked to rewards and pleasures and the pain neuromodulation system. It also intensified linguistic abilities”, he writes. 

“For people whose cognition is declining, music can facilitate the activation of highly plastic neural networks, which are involved in episodic autobiographical memories in individuals with brain malfunctions. Therefore, the benefits of music are already widely known for many international groups, due to its ability to evoke emotions and bring back hidden memories”.

Mauro also explains that kids are not the only ones who benefit from listening to music; teenagers do as well, as music acts as a helping factor to them during the difficult transitioning stage, in which they encounter “changes that are not only hormonal but also neurobiological, as well as changes in impulsivity, motor agility and periods of oscillating moods and boredom”. 

Written by Débora Nazário

Translated by Mariana Gruber


According to an article about neurodevelopment and musical education, the human brain goes through four main stages of structural development. 

The first one happens during fetal development, during pregnancy, where the formation of billions of cells occurs in order to form the brain’s structure.

The second stage is soon after the birth and in the first few years of life with the emergence of connections between the cells, which create the brain’s “mind maps”, responsible for sight, language, hearing, etc. 

The third stage happens between the ages of 4 and 10, during which every new learning reorganizes and reinforces the connections between the cells of the human brain. And the last stage happens after the age of 10, when the brain is still able to undergo physical changes and learns and memorizes information throughout its life. 

In other words: half of the brain’s formation stages is during childhood, when the best “conditions” for learning are presented. 

Windows of opportunity

Another common concept in neuroscience is the “windows of opportunity”, periods in which kids appear to develop each type of intelligence more easily, making each stimulus and development more efficient. It’s worth remembering that such windows are not fixed and definitive, they are simply estimates. 

Taking into account the windows of opportunity, we can mention here some types of intelligence which are developed more easily during childhood and how to stimulate them. 

  • Linguistic or Verbal Intelligence: it is developed from birth until the age of 10, in which connections that transform sounds into words with meaning are developed. Vocal games, conversations, stories, tales, rhymes, and musical stories can stimulate linguistic or verbal intelligence. 
  • Musical Intelligence: it is developed from birth until the age of 10. From the age of 3, the brain areas that dominate motor coordination are very sensitive and already allow for musical execution. It can be stimulated through singing, hearing, movement, dancing, musical games, sounds identification, and other activities that develop the inner ear. 
  • Body Kinesthetic Intelligence: it is developed from birth until the age of 6. The brain develops the ability to associate visualization and the act of grabbing an object, for example. It is developed through play activities that stimulate touch, taste and sense of smell, mimes, movement interpretation, and various motor activities and games, with or without objects. 
  • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence: from birth until the age of 10. Cognition is developed through kids’ actions towards objects in the world and their expectations of them. It can be developed through drawings, representations, games, musical activities, and simple problem resolutions in various areas that stimulate logical thinking. 

Music and Truth and Tales

Our app Truth and Tales, for kids between the ages of 5 and 10, has many activities that can stimulate the four types of intelligence mentioned above. 

The interactive stories stimulate the Linguistic or Verbal intelligence by telling stories in rhymes; the Musical intelligence by the soundtrack and some sound identification games with musical notes; and the Logical-Mathematical intelligence by problem solving games using drawings and representations. 

The audiobooks also stimulate the Linguistic or Verbal intelligence for the same reason as the interactive stories; and they also stimulate Musical intelligence due to their soundtracks. 

The exercises from Move It-Move It, that restore kids to their homeostatic state, stimulate their Body Kinesthetic intelligence through movements interpretation and motor activity games. . 

We highlight here the soundtrack of the app itself, which covers the entire Truth and Tales’ experience: from the menu to the activities. Knowing about the effect of music on kids’ brains, we asked qualified professionals to create a soundtrack especially for the app. Its musicality makes the entire experience even more special. 

Sources for the article: 

Literartes – Revistas da USP

O Globo

Jornal da USP

Ciências e Cognição  

El Economista

Stories with humor are beneficial to the brain and to cognitive development

Childhood is a time during which we learn a lot and cognitive development is being constantly stimulated when we are little. Stories with humor in them also have an important role in this development. 

Each new stimulus children receive makes them explore the world, their senses, and, therefore, learn and interact with their environment. Reading stories is a way to stimulate these learnings. 

In this article, we explained that reading stimulates the growth of white matter in the brain, which is a set of nervous fibers in the brain that help it to learn and function. 

The benefits of stories with humour for kids

Researchers Olufolake Orekoya, Edmund SS Chan and Maria PY Chik, all from Hong Kong Baptist University, wrote the article “Humor and Reading Motivation in Children: Does the Tickling Work?”. In this article, they explain how reading and, mainly, literature with elements of humor can be beneficial to children’s learning. 

They present a two-year investigation about learning and teaching children’s literature done by five universities with elementary school students. It reveals that most children prefer reading books that make them laugh

The results also showed that what makes children avid readers are books with funny stories. The study reported what were children’s preferences when it came to reading, which goes from funny stories to adventurous ones,  fantasy and others. 

Children are easily adaptable to the bond in humor and creativity, both of which help cognitive development. As children grow up and become more cognitively mature, they may appreciate different forms of humor present in the stories. 

Reading, humor and cognitive development

The article states that “humor appreciation is closely related to cognitive development”. “When a child is engaged in humour appreciation, he or she intends to finish a problem-solving exercise to identify and unfold the incongruity hidden beneath the humour stimuli.” (Zigler, Levine, & Gould, 1967)

“Literature confirms the benefits and significance of humour for school learning socially, cognitively, affectively and behaviorally since it facilitates playful learning environment, lessened learning anxiety, stimulated students’ learning motivation, and deepened teacher-student relationship (Davies & Apter, 1980).”

“When children read humourous texts, they engaged in a ‘cognitive play’, ‘where words and concepts are used in ways that are surprising, unusual, and incongruous, activating schemas with which they are not normally associated’ (Martin, 2007, p. 109; Shultz & Robillard, 1980).”

According to Rod A. Martin, reading as a cognitive activity possibly activates “positive emotion of mirth (i.e. enjoyment), leading to enhancement of creativity, memory and social virtues that include: sense of responsibility, helpfulness and generosity) (Martin, 2007).”  

Humor theories

John Morreall, who is a PhD in Philosophy and Emeritus Professor of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, evaluated three traditional theories regarding laughter and humor: the Theory of Superiority, the Theory of Relief and the Theory of Incongruity. Based on these theories, he put forward a new one which claims that humor is cognitive play

John explains that “not all laughter is about persons, and so there need be no comparison of persons”, as it was stated in the Theory of Superiority of humor. He says “we may be amused by a stage comedian doing a perfect impression of some movie star without comparing ourselves with that comedian or the movie star. And even if we do compare ourselves with persons about whom we are laughing, we need not judge ourselves superior to them. They may make us laugh by surprising us with unexpected skills that we lack.” 

“After two millennia in which the Superiority Theory was the only widely accepted account of laughter, the Relief Theory and the Incongruity Theory emerged in the 18th century. According to the Relief Theory, laughter operates like a safety valve in a steam pipe, releasing built-up nervous energy.”

This theory, however, started to be questioned. The act of speaking and the elements of humor in said speech didn’t seem to require emotions. In addition, some experiences of fun also rely solely on the element of surprise. The Theory of Incongruity was one of the most widely accepted in the twentieth century, since it stated that “humorous amusement is a reaction to something that violates our mental patterns and expectations.” 

Reflections on the theories of humor

After considering the theories of humor mentioned above, professor John Morreall wrote that there are four insights. “First, humor is a cognitive phenomenon – it involves perceptions, thoughts, mental patterns, and expectations. Secondly, humor involves a change of cognitive state. Thirdly, that cognitive change is sudden. And fourthly, amusement is pleasurable.” 

To these four insights he added others: 

“ 1) Humor is a nonserious activity in which we suspend practical concern and concern about what is true. 

2) Humor is primarily a social experience.

3) Humor is a form of play in which laughter serves as a play signal. Coining the term shift for a sudden change, we can say that humor involves the enjoyment of cognitive shifts.”

Putting all these ideas together, he presented the following theory of humorous amusement: 

Laughter makes people experience a cognitive shift and “their playful disengagement and their pleasure are expressed in laughter, which signals to others that they can relax and enjoy the cognitive shift too.”

How humor affects the brain

Brian David Boyd, professor from The University of Auckland in New Zealand, explains that laughter, although it is often triggered by words, is in itself pre-verbal and non-verbal

According to an excerpt from his article, “laughter and sobbing are ‘the first two social vocalizations that children make’; unlike speech, they are relatively involuntary, socially contagious, and with a consistent emotional valence; like other primate social calls they do not require fine articulation but only an ’alternation of the presence and absence of vocal sounds, superimposed on relatively more stable mouth postures,’ and their motor activity depends on mid-brain and brain stem circuits rather than the higher speech centers.”

Training for the unexpected

This confident sharing of expectations that happens in verbal communication is essential for social play. This also happens in games and activities, so that there is as much room as possible for the unexpected. 

Shared expectations that allow for surprises that catch us off guard, that simulate risk and stimulate recovery, are the key not only to play of all kinds but also to humor. In jokes we are often primed for surprise, but despite our actively seeking to anticipate an unexpected resolution, the punch line still takes us unawares, but in a way that allows the tripping up of our expectations to be followed by a swift regaining of balance.”

Laughter brings us together

The article also says that “our very recognition that we share such expectations makes our amusement socially binding in the way that physical play, through  its dependence on the less novel expectations of ritualized behavior, also serves to unite. 

If a would-be joke does not take us by surprise, if, as we say, we see the punch line a mile off, we will not find it funny. On the other hand, springing a joke with insufficient preparation can also ruin it.

But if our expectation has been primed, if we know a joke is coming, and we still find the punch line takes us by surprise, it will be even funnier: it resembles exactly the relationship between the keen general expectation of play, and the acute particular surprises animals, including humans, especially enjoy in play.”

At last, in his article, professor Brian brings up a question asked by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett: “What advantage could Homo sapiens gain from laughing? Why would laughter and humor have evolved as behaviors that matter so much to us?”

His answer was the following: “Laughter, by signaling our pleasure in cognitive play, invites and encourages us to prepare playful surprises for one another. Playing socially with our expectations reinforces our sense of solidarity, our recognition of the huge body of expectations we share; it trains us to cope with and even seek out the unexpected that surrounds and can extend these expectations; and yet it can offer a first more or less playful warning to those who diverge from them in ways we reject.”

Written by Débora Nazário

Translated by Mariana Gruber


Now that we already know the role humor has in stories and children’s preferences for funny tales, here are some reading recommendations!

Truth and Tales, the app we developed, has many stories that are full of twists and humor! They are Teaching Stories, which you can learn more about here. The Teaching Stories usually make use of lots of humor in order to develop a certain level of preparedness to the unexpected as well as give the stories a special touch!

The Truth and Tales story called “The Child and the Dragon” presents several funny characters and dialogue, in addition to twists and turns the reader never sees coming!

Download the app and try reading, playing or listening to our stories!