Your brain on music

UC Davis’ Dr. Petr Janata seeks to uncover the secretrelationship between music, emotions and memory

Photo By Kyle Monk

To participate in Dr. Petr Janata’s online research on the topic of music and memory, go to his Web lab at, click “Participate” and go to “online experiments.”

To watch the documentary The Musical Brainfeaturing Sting, Daniel Levitin and Petr Janata, go to

To find Petr Janata’s February 24 article for Cerebral Cortex, “The neural architecture of music-evoked autobiographical memories,” go to and click “publications.”

Deep in the dog days of summer—the end of August 2007—Dr. Petr Janata sat at his computer writing some impossibly complicated code for one of his experiments about music and the brain.

Outside his office window at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, heat from the triple-digit temps rose upward in waves from the parking lot’s surface. The center was deserted. Most of its dozen core faculty members and dozens more staffers were on summer vacation. While he worked, Janata waited for critical results from a major experiment he’d been conducting since joining the UC Davis faculty in 2005. The analysis took a massive amount of computing power—the center’s computer had already been crunching data round-the-clock for more than 50 days.

“Honestly, I was a little bit afraid of seeing what the result would be,” Janata admitted nearly two years later. A lot was at stake for the associate professor—more than two years of work. There are no guarantees in research. A scientist postulates a hypothesis, and his experiment proves him right—or wrong.

Did Janata’s statistical model explain his premise about a relationship among emotions, music and memory in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain?

When the answer came back “yes,” Janata thought, “Holy shit!”

His heart raced. He began bouncing up and down in his chair. He searched the lab for someone to tell. “It was an ecstatic moment—the kind you look forward to as a scientist—you want to tell the world.”

Songs and brain scans

Janata’s discovery isn’t some esoteric tidbit that only ivory-tower sorts find fascinating. The 41-year-old cognitive neuroscientist is working to unlock the secrets of a powerful force that humans can’t seem do without and that science has yet to explain—music. He studies the brain to find out why and how music moves us. And his most recent work brings science one step closer to understanding music’s pull by explaining the experience we’ve all had of being transported back in time to slow-dancing with a new love or driving with the top down on a hot summer night with good friends when we hear certain songs.

Music occupies much of Janata’s leisure time, too. He’s seen here sharing music at home with his singer-songwriter wife, Katie Henry, his son, Oliver, 10, and daughter, Fiala, 7.

Photo By Kyle Monk

Janata started by gathering data from 13 UC Davis undergrads as they listened to 30-second snippets of songs that topped the pop and R&B charts during their extended childhoods from about ages 7 to 19. In experiments at a UC Davis Medical Center lab, Janata fixed headphones over the students’ ears and positioned their heads in the center of an MRI bore. A cage was lowered over their heads, and researchers stuffed foam padding around the edges so students couldn’t move their heads and risk blurring the pictures of brain activity. Inside the darkened room, each student lay beneath two layers of blankets and settled in for the hour-long experiment.

From an adjacent control room, Janata ran computers that conducted the brain scans and presented the songs to the students. Tapping on a keypad, students indicated how pleasing or familiar each song was, and if they experienced autobiographical memories. At the same time, receivers in the MRI cage picked up perturbations in magnetic fields that allowed Janata to map sections of the brain that were active as students listened.

Some familiar tunes evoked strong visual and emotional memories for the subjects. When Michelle Branch sang, “So I took your hand and we figured out / That when the tide comes / I’d take you away,” one student pictured her hometown and best friend. When listening to K-Ci & Jojo’s lyrics, “I will never find another lover sweeter than you,” she was flooded with powerful emotions and vivid images of an ex-boyfriend. And when she heard R. Kelly sing, “I don’t see nothin’ wrong with a little bump ’n’ grind,” she was transported back in time to her senior-year winter dance.

With the help of test subjects and brain scans, Janata can see the association between music and memories, as on this computer screen. He explains: “A piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head.”

Photo By Kyle Monk

For the experiment, it was crucial to use music from students’ prepubescent and teen years, since that’s where our strongest memories come from. Also, it’s a time when music plays a critical role in our lives, and our raging hormones ensure that it becomes incorporated with our sense of self and social identity. Janata’s idea was that music may interact with memories to help us maintain a sense of self as we age.

As he explains the intricacies of how the brain processes music in his UC Davis office, which is located in an industrial park east of the campus, Janata moves quickly from idea to idea. He grabs a brain scan to illustrate one point. Next, he displays a geometric form—called the torus—and explains how it represents all the major and minor keys of Western tonal music. Then he brings up a video on his computer to show how the song, “The Girl From Ipanema,” moves through tonal space. Everything eventually leads—one step to the next—to an explanation.

With his mop of slightly wild, just-starting-to-gray hair; wide-ranging curiosity; and almost boyishly enthusiastic friendliness, Janata defies the stereotype of an academic. Dr. Dell Rhodes, Janata’s undergraduate adviser and professor emeritus at Reed College, explained: “He’s not your usual pointy-headed scientist. Many academics are so narrow they don’t see beyond their own window. Petr’s unusual in the breadth and depth of his understanding. If he stays too long on one little point, he gets bored.”

The images here, from Dr. Petr Janata’s research, are animations of how music moves around in tonal space. The letters on the images correspond to the 24 major and minor keys. As the harmonies in the music of these songs change, so does the color and activation pattern.<br><br>Aerosmith: “Jaded”

Courtesy of Dr. Petr Janata

Janata hit on the idea about a hub for emotions, music and memory through a combination of previous discoveries. A puzzling observation in an early study showed the medial prefrontal cortex consistently active when musicians listened to musical tones started him down this path. Documentation that music serves as a potent trigger for retrieving memories added to his suspicions. Then an explosion of research in a field called social neuroscience that pegged the location of self-referential activity—how we maintain our sense of self, feel, think, infer what others are thinking—in the same region of the brain gave further strength to Janata’s conviction about the existence of the hub.

Add that to an avalanche of anecdotal information about how Alzheimer’s sufferers—the prefrontal medial cortex is the last area of the brain to atrophy with this disease—brighten up, dance, sing and even recognize wrong notes in music from their past, and Janata knew he was onto something important.

When he began to analyze the data, the results from the first runs were right on target. The medial prefrontal cortex lit up like a Christmas tree whenever strong autobiographical memories were evoked. But when the second analysis was done, he started to sweat. When it showed activity throughout the brain, not just localized in the area right behind the forehead as he’d hypothesized, he thought: “Oh, no. Why is the entire brain lighting up?”

Here’s where it gets complicated: It turns out that the scans picked up brain activity occurring on a variety of time scales, including some that had nothing to do with the music, though Janata didn’t know that until he’d performed a third highly complex analysis.

Otis Redding: “(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay”

Courtesy of Dr. Petr Janata

To get at the truth of what was happening in the students’ brains, Janata refined his statistical analysis in a way that required running 100 extra models so that he could pinpoint the brain activity as each student heard a song. Crunching the numbers for these extra models required about four days of pure CPU time. With 13 subjects, that adds up to 52 days. But when the computers had finished on that late-August day, Janata breathed a sigh of relief.

“What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye,” Janata said. “Now we can see the association between those two things—the music and the memories.”

What this all boils down to in practical terms is a cheap and easy way to give pleasure to Alzheimer’s patients. “We’re talking an iPod, a playlist and the potential to make these people at least transiently happy,” Janata said. “If you can have quality of life improvements for that little money, that’s huge.”

Never get bored

Janata, whose parents are both chemists, says he grew up believing that everybody at some point would become a scientist. “Anything else was just a minor detour from becoming a scientist.”

Early on, his fascination with how people think led him to psychology, but it wasn’t until he connected music with the brain that his focus turned to neuroscience.

Music has been a powerful force throughout Janata’s life. In his childhood—spent first in England where his Czech parents retreated to wait for visas to return to the United States, then later in Salt Lake City after they joined the faculty at the University of Utah—music was classical, with some Czech folk songs thrown into the mix. He studied piano and attended weekly music theory classes together with his teacher’s other students. Today, Janata the psychologist quips about having been in “group theory” as opposed to group therapy. He learned enough that by the time he arrived at Reed College in Oregon, he was able to “test out” of first-year music theory.

It was an epiphany he experienced in his first psych class at Reed that set him on the path to neuroscience. Once he learned that our brains form mental representations that in many ways mirror the world around us, he connected that to the leading theory of the day about how the brain internalizes musical structure and the fact that music plays with that to manipulate emotions through expectations.

“I thought, ‘Wow! That’s pretty cool. Here’s this formal system that allows one to set up and manipulate expectations—what a great tool for studying how the brain works!’”

His passion was born and his path set. Music wasn’t the “minor detour” to his becoming a scientist that he might have suspected when he began exploring pop music “on the sly” in junior high. At first he listened secretly to the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Grateful Dead, because he feared his parents would be angry. They encouraged his experimentation, and by the time he arrived at Reed, he was a ponytailed, tie-dye-wearing, keyboard-playing “Deadhead,” which is, when you think about it, kind of an ironic moniker for a guy who’d turn out to be one of the world’s most distinguished researchers on brain activity.

There’s a sense of playful delight when Janata talks about his work. It’s a quality that Daniel Levitin, a fellow brain researcher, musician and friend who wrote This Is Your Brain on Music, sees in great musicians. “If you listen to Stevie Wonder, for example, it sounds like he’s playing—it doesn’t sound like a job. You get that in Petr’s work.”

Janata may seem to be playing when doing the serious work of brain research. He also takes play seriously, though he keeps his life simple by limiting it to two things: music and skiing.

Justin Timberlake: “Rock Your Body”

Courtesy of Dr. Petr Janata

An expert skier, he’s traversed mountains around the world and dreams of being lifted via helicopter to “the top of 2,000 vertical feet of untouched powder again and again and again.” The proximity of the Sierra’s slopes is one reason he settled at Davis. He skis often with his kids, Oliver, 10, and Fiala, 7. Both are advanced skiers. He’s also on the lookout for new sand dunes to ski down; he’s been sand skiing in such exotic locations as Qatar.

Music—often the Dead—occupies a lot of Janata’s leisure time, though he recently gave up playing keyboards in the Davis rock-folk band Hardwater, because it stole too much time from his family. He shares music with his singer-songwriter wife, Katie Henry. They met first when he was her teaching assistant for a class at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and grew to know each better when he enlisted her for an experiment about what happens in the brain when trained musicians hear a note that is wrong or different than they expect. “He put one of those EEG nets over my head. It was a tedious experiment. I listened to sequences of notes and had to tap this little thing.”

When Henry fell asleep during one of Janata’s other experiments after a particularly tiring day—she insists—it was the last she participated in. But they continue to merge their musical lives on occasion. Just last month, Henry joined Janata and the band, Live on Arrival, for a rocking rendition of “Shakedown Street” (“Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart”) at the Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau. Janata played keys with the band that featured friend Riley Woodford; the Janatas’ kids; Henry’s brother, Hiram; and her Jerry Garcia-look-alike father, Pat. Naturally, the band’s other song in that night’s set was also by the Grateful Dead, “Althea.” It was Henry’s 37th appearance at the festival—she grew up in Alaska and has performed there alone and with her father since she was a child—but Janata only manages to go every other year.

But every August, Janata cooks up enormous batches of pasta and his specialty pestos and invites musicians from across the country to his house for a seriously fun jam. He started throwing the parties while a grad student, and it was at one of the parties in Eugene that he and Henry got together about five years after they first met. The pesto parties continued as annual events in cities along Janata’s career path, including Chicago, New Hampshire and now Davis. Last year, the Janatas rolled back a chain-link fence to let the party spill out of their yard into a neighboring green space, while more than 200 musicians jammed throughout the night, with Janata holding the fort at the electric jam in the garage and Henry highlighting the acoustic session in the garden.

Just to show that music reaches into all parts of his life, Janata even enlisted the help of his then-21-month-old daughter by showing a video of her dancing and clapping her hands as Trout Fishing in America sang “It’s always entertaining here in my world / I never get bored never get bogged down” to potential colleagues when he was interviewing for faculty positions.

There’s just something about music that as 1920s orchestra leader Meyer Davis said can make even “shy debs and severe dowagers kick off their shoes and raise some wholesome hell.” Janata made his case through the video of Fiala’s dancing: “Music lets us study those rich and compelling behaviors.”

Neuroscience of music

Don’t think that because Janata’s fun, he’s a lightweight. He published the first of dozens of research papers when he was only a junior at Reed College, continued his studies as a Fulbright scholar in Vienna, Austria, completed his Ph.D. at the University of Oregon, did post-doctorate work at the University of Chicago, published a career-making discovery in the prestigious international journal Science and was on the research faculty at Dartmouth College before coming to UC Davis.

He’s made important inroads into answering the question we all have about music: “Why are we so sensitive to its charms?”

As Janata likes to point out, “Music is not necessary for human survival, yet something inside us craves it.” It fascinates us. We spend more money on music than we do on sex or drugs. Globally, it’s a $130 billion-a-year industry, yet music’s lure remains a mystery.

There’s been a growing popular interest in recent years in understanding why music so beguiles us. A simple Google search in early May provides testimony to that attraction. “Music + brain” yielded nearly 29 million hits in .19 seconds; the same search for news articles returned 3,200 citations in a quarter second.

Alicia Keys: “If I Ain’t Got You”

Courtesy of Dr. Petr Janata

Throughout history, there hasn’t been a single culture without music of one sort or another. “Whenever humans come together for any reason, there is music,” Levitin writes in the best-selling This Is Your Brain on Music. Music marks ceremonies and rites of passage—graduations, weddings, funerals. It revs us up and calms us down. It relieves our solitude and marks our utter aloneness in the world. With music, we can feel “invulnerable” as Henry David Thoreau did, and understand why Bruce Springsteen said, “The best music is there to provide you with something to face the world with.”

What does science have to say about why something so seemingly useless to the human condition as music developed? The musician Sting points to one theory when he talks about music’s power as a force for social cohesion in a documentary called The Musical Brain, which features Janata, Levitin, and an examination of Sting’s brain and the neuroscience of music.

Research reveals that when people perform music together or listen to it, their bodies release oxytocin—a trust or bonding hormone—which might also relate to another argument that music developed in humans as a mechanism of sexual attraction.

Still others believe music might have been simply an accident of evolution that people continued to develop since, if Confucius was right, “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.”

The bottom line is that music moves us, and that makes us want to understand how and why.

Music moves us physically, as Janata describes in The Musical Brain: “The more we like music, the more we move to it, and the more we move to it, the more pleasure we feel. Music stimulates the release of dopamine—the so-called feel-good hormone.”

Everyone knows this power of music to get us moving, which filmmaker Woody Allen takes to extremes for the sake of a joke: “I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.”

And, of course, music moves us emotionally.

Ace Of Base: “Cruel Summer”

Courtesy of Dr. Petr Janata

But could it be possible that the pleasure of music is derived simply from “counting” or “unconscious arithmetic,” as the 17th-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz postulated?

Janata might agree there’s something to that argument. Our brains, he explains, are basically prediction machines. “Most people say they’re really bad at statistics, but they don’t realize that our brains are all about processing the statistics of what goes on all around us. Being able to predict lets us interact fluidly with our environment to detect when things are working and when things are not working.

“When we grow up in a particular musical system,” he said, “we internalize the statistics of that musical system. This helps us figure out what notes belong together in a particular key, what note comes next in a song or what chords follow others in harmonic progressions. Different musical genres are based on their statistics.”

That keeps us comfortable with certain music, but pleasure comes from musical surprises. When music doesn’t surprise us by always presenting the most likely next notes, we get bored. Muzak’s predictability is why we hate it.

For Henry, music is one of the most important ways humans create meaning in life. She admires her husband’s work in tracking where meaning is made in the brain. Convinced that eliminating music, play and movement takes the meaning-making out of life and diminishes its quality, she’s become an advocate for music in education. She recently earned an education master’s degree at Sacramento State in curriculum and instruction, with an emphasis in arts in education, and recruited Janata to deliver a five-part lecture on music and the brain to an Education Through Music colloquium in Chicago.

“His commitment to facilitating understanding of his work to people who are not in his academic world is one of the many things I just love about Petr,” Henry said.

Sharing what he learns is a deliberate extension of how Janata sees his role in having the good fortune of studying as his life’s work the “two most beautiful things nature has created: music and the brain.”

Magic, bliss and power

In Janata’s workaday world, he spends significant time sharing what he knows through presentations and publications, reviewing other researchers’ work, answering questions from curious members of the public and the media, and teaching and mentoring. Sometimes the load of requests gets so heavy that he shuts down his e-mail for a time so he can concentrate on his own thoughts and research.

What makes Janata’s work so exciting, Levitin said, is that “he’s getting at very important questions about cognition and the brain—he just happens to use music to get at them.”

As an example, he offers one of Janata’s experiments at the University of Oregon that demonstrated “it was nearly impossible to tell if people were listening to or imaging music—suggesting that people use the same brain regions for remembering as they do for perceiving.”

Norah Jones: “Don’t Know Why”

Courtesy of Dr. Petr Janata

Janata’s passion about his research is infectious. In one current project, he’s working to shed light on the connections between music, spirituality and religion. In another, he’s studying what goes on in the brain when people are “in the groove” with music. He’s also hoping to find funding to expand his work on the hub for music, emotions and memory by studying it in a large group of baby boomers.

When he talks about his work, one connection is made, then another and another. He admits to being amazed a how accurately his intuition has been guiding him lately and to the fact that deeper questions are embedded in his mind. His greatest discovery is yet to come, but Janata thinks he knows what it will be.

“I think it will end up being how this experience of memories is embedded within how our brains work. Music engages basic brain circuitry that’s in place for our survival and well-being, but it engages it in a way that’s pleasurable for us.” Janata said. “If the brain is actively seeking out musical engagement, we can turn that around and ask why the brain seeks music, and that way answer a fundamental question about the neuroscience of the brain.”

Even as Janata and other scientists continue their work on unraveling the mysteries of music, our intuition insists we can’t do without its power. Doubters need just watch the recent YouTube phenomenon when a flash mob of 200 came together to sing and dance their version of “Do-Re-Mi” in Antwerp Central Station in Belgium. Busy commuters stopped and joined in the action spontaneously, and the video has put a smile on the faces of millions who’ve seen it. It just feels true, as San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas noted, “The world changes when there’s music in it.”

But it seems fitting to end a story about Janata by letting Jerry Garcia have the last word about the allure of music: “We need magic, and bliss and power, myth and celebration, and religion in our lives, and music is a good way to encapsulate a lot of it.”