The Temporal Lobe's Role in Singing

I love brains. I love how they function and how much there is to learn about them. I never, ever get tired of learning how it works, especially in singing. After all, all singing begins in the brain.

This week, let's take a brief look at one part of the brain and how it relates to singing. The temporal lobe is one of the four main divisions of the brain, located on either side around the area of your temples and ears. It's the area in green in the picture to the left. And it has an incredible amount of involvement with your singing!


Generally speaking, one of the biggest functions of the temporal lobe is sensory processing. It's responsible for taking the things we hear and see and making meaning of them. Of course, hearing and seeing are big parts of making music for most people (though you can certainly still make music if you can't see or hear!).


Primary auditory cortex


The primary auditory cortex is the part of the temporal lobe that takes in the raw information provided by the nerves in the ears and decides what it all means. Naturally, I'm only scratching the surface here, and I won't get too technical in this blog post, but this processing of auditory information helps us to do things like:

  • perceive which direction sound is coming from (echolocation)

  • perceive which language is being spoken

  • understand the meaning of language

  • recognize who is talking to us

  • discern pitches, timbre, and rhythm in music

  • discern volume and dynamics of the things we hear

  • determine which sounds are important and which sounds we can ignore

For a demonstration you can use with yourselves or your students to show how this part of the brain works to sift sounds for us, sit quietly in a room and notice all the things you hear. Chances are, you'll notice things that you hadn't noticed before. You might notice birdsong, or a fan from the HVAC, or a buzzing from electronics or road noise. You have always been hearing these things, but your brain has determined what is important to listen to, and so those unimportant sounds are not brought to your conscious attention. (This is different for neurodivergent folks with processing differences, though. More on that later.) This easy demonstration can give you a quick way to show your students how powerful their brains can be in filtering out information for them!


We use this incredibly powerful function of our brains to help us when we perform, by filtering

out the auditory information that is not going to help us, such as crowd noise, buzzing from lights, paper rustling, etc. Sometimes this area is heightened with adrenaline, however, so you might sometimes find that it gets a little distracted by things you might normally ignore if you're nervous. That's your brain deciding whether you're in a threatening situation or not. We also use this part of the brain to help us count and know when to come in on time, and to sing the right words when we do come in. The auditory cortex is incredibly helpful in making music. Thanks, brain!


Visual Processing


While a lot of the visual processing happens in the occipital lobe at the back of the brain, because of the temporal lobe's role in memory, it helps in object recognition. The input from the optic nerves are run through the temporal lobe's memory centers to help you know what it is you're looking at. You might consider it a bit of a filing system, where the visual memory section takes little snapshots of everything you've seen, so that when you see it again you can identify it.


Memory

Toward the center of the brain, there are two almond-shaped organs called the amygdala that are essential in creating long term memories. The amygdala communicates with the hippocampus, which is the structure thought to turn short-term memories into long-term memories. We use this part of our brain in memorization and to remember past performances and skills that we have learned. It's frankly amazing to me how small these areas of the brain are, but how powerful they are. Concentrated awesome. This area of the temporal lobe also seems to have a lot do to with our emotional responses to situations, and may be central in anxiety disorders. In particular, those with PTSD may have emotional responses attached to memories, and the connection made between the emotions and memories may happen in this part of the brain.


Neurodivergence


Because of all of the sensory processing that happens in this part of the brain, it is thought that anomalies in the temporal lobe can lead to sensory processing disorders, anxiety, and some types of mental illnesses. If this area of the brain is unable to filter out the sensory information into important/not important, a person may be overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. This is important for us to recognize as teachers, and understand that the cause of such overstimulation is at the functional level in the brain. We can't change it from the outside by insisting that our clients think or behave differently. Much of what is happening in the temporal lobe was determined before birth as the brain was developing in utero.


We can, however, help to mitigate some of that overstimulation in our lessons and performances by taking into account when a client's brain gets to the tipping point, and removing as much stimulation from the environment as possible. Things like turning off fans, dimming or turning off lights and screens, reducing volume, introducing mindfulness practices, and reducing talking can help the temporal lobe come back to a place of stasis. For more information on that, here are some resources to try:


https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-highly-sensitive-man/201910/how-deal-overstimulation


https://www.braininjury-explanation.com/life-with-brain-injury/dealing-with-overstimulation-1

(I particularly like the suggestion in the above link of a red, yellow, green system that you can implement to help a client quickly tell you how they are feeling in any given moment.)


Other things to consider


There is also some evidence that types of epilepsy, especially those that are triggered by sensory overstimulation (like flashing lights) can occur through damage to the temporal lobe. Reading and processing disorders like dyslexia may be housed in this part of the brain. Also, those rare individuals with amusia may be unable to correctly process pitch or rhythm due to differences in their temporal lobes.


This area of the brain is powerful, and the depth of its function is endlessly fascinating to me. As voice teachers, we can utilize this part of the brain's immense power to create beautiful music and communicate it to our audiences. We can also celebrate and honor the myriad ways our clients' brains can differ from one another, and adjust how we teach and interact in a way that works with their brains, instead of trying to overcome whatever deficit we may initially perceive. These differences make our clients unique.


As I have learned more about how the temporal lobe works and its role in music-making, and especially as I've learned about the variations that can occur in each unique client, I have been able to adapt my teaching to work with the brain, rather than trying to make each person's brain fit an ideal. It is my hope that you also can see how your teaching can work with your clients and adapt the process of singing to their individual needs and strengths.


If you have any particular questions about how to do that in your own studio, reach out to me! I'd love to help you sift through the science and help you see how it can influence your teaching. In the mean time, if you get curious, searching for information on the temporal lobe is a fun way to fall down a neuro rabbit hole, and ignite your love for your brain and for singing. After all, all singing begins in the brain, and it learning more about the whole instrument can help us to honor our bodies and brains more. I hope that is true for you and your clients!


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