Dear Daniel,

We don’t just use our ears to hear music. A big part of hearing also has to do with our brains. Our ears certainly are necessary to help us hear, but it is our brain that helps interpret the sounds in our environment.

Our brains are made up of many different cells called neurons. Many of these neurons, like the ones that make up our auditory systems, help you do specific things like hear sound.

altMy friend Christine Portfors, who works at the WSU Hearing and Communication Lab, said many of the neurons can help you hear measure different things, like the tone, volume, or length of a sound. They are able to do this by receiving electrical impulses sent from hair-cells in the ear, which create electrical impulses from sound waves in the air.

Portfors said the process of how the neurons in our brain work together to hear sound is complex and scientists don’t understand how it all works yet.

Listening to music doesn’t just cause the neurons in your auditory system to react, it stimulates other parts of the brain as well, Portfors said.

Have you ever listened to music and noticed your foot tapping along to the beat? Portfors said this happens because music stimulates the part of the brain that controls muscle movement.

Music also stimulates the part of the brain associated with language. This is why people often sing along with the lyrics of a song, Portfors said.

Besides stimulating the regions of the brain associated with language and muscle movement, music also stimulates the part of the brain known to be important to feelings of reward, motivation, and emotion. Portfors said listening to music can cause the brain to release a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is known to be released when something is rewarding and feels good, such as eating food.

Portfors said this enjoyable rush from dopamine is likely why we enjoy listening to the same song over and over.

“Particular songs may stimulate lots of neurons in different regions of the brain and cause the release of dopamine, so we keep listening over and over again to keep feeling good,” she said.

Cameron Sheppard (and Dr. Universe)

Cameron Sheppard, a student in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, contributed this article. Student science writers work with Dr. Universe to explore science communication, while helping inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.