The Importance of Subcortical Regions

In order to understand how the emotional response to music occurs in the brain, one must first understand which regions are involved in general emotional responses. There do seem to be different regions of the brain involved in different emotions. In terms of the emotional responses to music, there does appear to be a level of interplay between these various regions, many acting simultaneously to generate a certain response or reaction, which is common, if not inevitable, for complex responses.

The part of the brain most commonly associated with emotional response is the amygdala, located in the limbic system of the brain, a subcortical group of structures involved in a wide variety of functions. The amygdala is also connected to three regions of the prefrontal cortex (among its many other connections). These three regions are the dorsolateral, orbitofrontal, and medial areas of the prefrontal cortex, which are often associated with the regulation of decision-making, negative emotions, and the assessment of appropriate emotional response to various environmental stimuli. Though the specific connections need not be discussed in depth here, the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are integral. These connections, among many others, demonstrate importance of interplay between various regions of the brain in nearly all behaviors. In this case, emotional response likely involved a level of interaction between cortical structures of the brain, particularly in the frontal lobe as well as temporal lobe, where the primary auditory corti are located.

Another significant subcortical region of the brain involved in emotional response is the periaqueductal gray. This is one of the main regions where changes due to music have been observed. The periaqueductal gray is located in the midbrain, surrounding the cerebral aqueduct that provides cerebro-spinal fluid to the brain. This, along with other subcortical regions of the brain, including the limbic system (including the amygdala, as previously mentioned), have been implicated in the generation of human emotional experiences. Another example is the inferior colliculi (adjacent to the periaqueductal gray), a brainstem ‘way-station’ for auditory processing. This may be the location where a mother’s voice leave’s its first “affective imprints” (Panksepp, 137). It is also rich in opiate receptors, arguably mediating the attachment to certain sounds. One may infer, then, that these opiate receptors may also be the ones activated by music.