Love, joy, and listening with the whole brain

In audio reviewing, there's a tension between scientific explanations for the qualities of the sound we hear and how the music, as conveyed through our equipment, makes us feel. Insights from the new field of interpersonal neurobiology can help us understand this conflict (footnote 1).

The distinction between our emotional response to music and our ability to describe and analyze it scientifically arises from the differing functions of the brain's right and left hemispheres. The right hemisphere is in constant communication with the autonomic nervous system (ANS) via branches of the vagus nerve to the internal organs, informing our sense of the meaning of events. The ANS produces our intuition and preverbal "gut reactions." The autonomic nervous system is integrated closely with the right hemisphere and develops earlier than the left hemisphere and language.

The right hemisphere of the mother is in real communication with the right hemisphere of the infant, forming the template for all authentic emotional communication. Tactile contact, rocking, and cooing are sensory cues for safety; our needs for touch, movement, rhythm, and song, which remain throughout our lives, are centered in this hemisphere. The sing-song speech of the mother adds excitement to this growing connection and establishes a foundation for the child's growing confidence and self-esteem, giving them courage to explore the world. It's a love affair, creating joy easily seen in the child's smiles, gurgles, and arm-waving.

Music will continue to give us joy and connection with others throughout our lives. It is the "balm in Gilead"—the universal salve—for the wounds and strains of life.

The left hemisphere begins its development between 10 and 18 months as the child begins to explore and talk. In time, words become the medium of exchange by which we attempt to share experiences. Right-hemisphere phenomena including rhythm, prosody, vocal inflection, body language, and facial expressions continue to inform us subconsciously about words' deeper meaning and import. As we mature, our "right brain" connects us emotionally via words, images, and music—to family, neighbors, and friends, and eventually to tribes, nations, and humanity.

Words are very good at making primary distinctions between objects, but they are very poor at capturing feelings and gut reactions. Our ability to represent internal sensations is limited; we're reduced to metaphor, simile, analogy—in other words, to poetry. Science can precisely define electrical variables, frequency, jitter, and other quantitative data but is hopeless at describing inner, qualitative experience. Poetry, then, is the language of the right hemisphere.

When we describe the sound of an audio system, what words do we use? We say it sounds "open" when the aural image seems spacious, even though nothing is actually open. The English like to use the word "jump" to describe dynamism in the sound, but doesn't it merely evoke the excitement of jumping?

I like to use the term "feathery" to describe the sound of "string carpet": the sweet sound of strings playing softly in a sustained way, under the melody of other instruments or voices. Of course, there are no "feathers"—just vibrating strings and resonating wood chambers—but "feathery" describes a sensual comfort I hear in the sound, like sinking into a feather bed.

When we try to capture the feelings created by a piece of music through a particular piece of equipment, all we are left with is some form of poetry. We search for and occasionally discover terms to communicate to others what the music helps us feel.

Through music, we connect with the right brains of composers and performers—even with emotional centers of the designers and builders of the equipment that we love, which we have carefully chosen to transport us to ethereal realms of joy.

The highest expression of universal love of humanity, I would argue, is Beethoven's Symphony No.9, which is based on the poetry of Schiller's "Ode to Joy." Schiller's poem describes joy as the "daughter of Elysium"—heaven—and when we are caught up in the pure ecstasy of the final movement, we feel connected by bonds of love to all humanity with something that can only be described as joy.

"You millions, I embrace you. This kiss is for all the world." The specific love and created joy of the mother and child is universalized to the love of all humanity through the feminine aspect—the daughter—of heaven itself: joy.

Music touches us first in the right hemisphere. It evokes a near-immediate response in our embodied selves. It takes about half a second for the left hemisphere to begin to engage the experience, striving to give words and concepts to what we already feel in our hearts as real and true. The audio reviewer should, as Jim Austin suggested in his As We See It essay in the March issue, pay attention to the feelings the music evokes first, using poetic analogies to describe them because that is how our brains work. Only then can we try, in a logical, scientific manner—in the left hemisphere—to explain what's responsible for the sound we are enjoying and why it is enjoyable. (Thank you, John Atkinson.)

As audiophiles, we want to feel like we are there while listening to recorded music. We thrill at the illusion of performance spaces spun from spatial cues. But, as Dr. Sattler tells John Hammond in Jurassic Park, it's all an illusion: "You can't think through this one, John. You have to feel it."

There is no "absolute sound"—just pleasing illusions that are an aural simile of the original experience, created by the mind, heart, and skill of the performers (and the recording engineers), realized in our homes by our carefully curated audio equipment. The "truth" of the illusion is in how it makes us feel. That's our reality, and it's what we audiophiles love.

Brian Richardson is a clinical psychologist in Lincoln, Illinois. He is also a longtime Stereophile reader.

Footnote 1: See Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, by Allan Schore (1994).

Herb Reichert's picture

your piece was a "joy" to read.

(hope you're workin' on the next one)

"...using poetic analogies to describe them because that is how our brains work." Is an interesting line.

I've had no direct experience of this right-brain/left-brain phenomena but I do know as an artist

if I want to make art that's both strong (visually) and deep (symbolically and emotionally); art capable of

being understood in any culture, I have to somehow be connected to something that feels universal,

pre-conscious, and pre-historic. Like listening to music.

Now please tell us about those summer storms in Lincoln, Illinois. (I grew up in Illinois)

Thanks for the nice read


Thierrym's picture

Thanks a lot for this very interesting article.
I have a personal question: I have always suffered from a quite low ability to understand lyrics of any song, even in my mother tongue (French). Can it be related to the fact that I listen to music with my right brain, and therefore my left brain is not active enough to understand the words?
Is it a common problem for other people?

Jonti's picture

You can choose to embrace this if your brain provides its own approximation of what's being sung. (Sometimes I prefer the lyrics I think I'm hearing to the actual lyrics when identified by a concerned friend.)

Jack L's picture


Should we ever need to worry about which side of our brain doing what musically? I don't, for sure.

My question: why music enjoyment should get involved with whoever psychologist here ?????

Would it better our music enjoyment ???

Listening to music is believing

Jack L

Jonti's picture

Thanks for the thought-provoking article.

Re: your point that

There is no "absolute sound"—just pleasing illusions that are an aural simile of the original experience, created by the mind, heart, and skill of the performers (and the recording engineers), realized in our homes by our carefully curated audio equipment.

I (mis?)read from this that the "absolute sound" is in fact the sound that was initially produced and experienced in the space of the studio or hall or other venue: the "original experience".

I think it's worth pointing out that a huge amount of music today (and over the past 30 years or so) is simply not made that way - think bedroom producers, autodidacts mixing on computers wearing headphones, Aphex Twin*, etc. - which of course only strengthens the point you're making: there is certainly no "absolute sound" when the music may have been conceived in a virtual vacuum.

And so, as you say, the drive of an audiophile should not be to pursue something that is absolute/perfect, but simply to conjure those "pleasing illusions" in the best way we can, according to our own preferences.

*Aphex Twin once commented that he loves listening to the same piece of music (his own or other) on as many different pairs of headphones as he can, just to hear the full spectrum of variables produced by different can designs.

Glotz's picture

refers to the live experience provided by equipment in internal spaces.

It does not refer to the 'source' reference.

While an illusion and though there may be many different flavors of the illusion, I do not believe it follows the 'as you like it' axiom.

I would argue that Aphex Twin produced with a live performanc in mind would mimic the absolute sound, however maligned by individual biases.

It is the pursuit of the live presentation, not to source, nor to personal whim.

I think there is a magazine that has a large discussion of thought on this subject... just guessing.

latinaudio's picture

Finally someone really educated has perfectly expressed the differences between individual perception and scientific explanations. I have understood this many years ago. That's why I smile every time the objectivists ask for double-blind tests: the brain and the emotions are the only tools that can select what is right or wrong, and each of us has it with a different capacity...
Thank you for such an excellent article that should enlighten many who fail to understand...

miguelito's picture

in terms of describing with words how we feel - it is hard and non-unique. What I might refer to as velvety sound might be something else for someone else.

However, as a person trained in physics, I know that what we hear can be measured. Everything that reaches our ears is a physical process, there's no magic going on. The issue is some people want to believe that the quantities they measure (eg freq response) fully characterize the sound, and this is the problem: they don't. I don't know what measurement we are missing, what I do know is the few things we do measure are not enough.

Even the things we do measure are measured incompletely. Example: THD is measured as the distortion on a max-level signal. You put a 2Vp-p sine wave into an amp and measure how much it is different at the output. But music does not occur at max volume, in fact most music occurs at low volume - this is why a class A-B amp sounds better than a class B generally: it avoids crossover distortion at low levels, and at high levels this distortion is masked by the sheer size of the signal.

So for starters, one should measure THD from a very low level to the max level and weight the measurements by an average distribution of volume in music (which kind of looks like a gaussian or bell curve - max at zero). That would give you a THD that makes more sense. That will also make amps with crossover distortion look worse than if you measured THD as it is measured today. I would bet that the current spec for THD measurements was created to make these amps look good.

Jack L's picture


Sorry. Not yet until God knows when, my friend.

THD measured using static bench test signals, i.e. sinewaves, not realtime dynamic music signals which an audio amp is design/built to handle.

When we ask for an apple, THD gives us an orange. So why worry about THD at all !

Let me take out Daniel Cheever's master's degree of science (electrical & computer engineering) thesis: "A New Methodolgy for Audio Frequency Power Amplifier testing on Psychoacoustic Data that better coorrelated with sound quality".

In his thesis, he experimented with a 5W class A SE power amp vs a transistor power amp of much higher power. THD of both were measured: tube 5% & transistor 0.002%.

Audition panel found the tube amp with 5% THD sounded better than the transistor amp.

The above experiment was vertified by another party using blind tests a few years later using brandanme tube & transistor amps.

So you would still believe in THD measured whatever way you demanded? Sorry, I don't.

Wait until you see the complex 3D presentation of musical signals vs sinewave test signals used in measuring audio amps. You would agree with me.

Listening with own ears is believing

Jack L

Anton's picture

It feels like green eggs and ham...

I like music in my car.
I like music played in a bar.

I like music on my Hi Fi.
I like it on a PA, no lie.

I like music on a bus.
I like music on cannabis.

Are there really any people who need the 'high end' fetish in order to actually allow them to fully enjoy their music?

I mean, I get it, listening to the Hi Fi is fun and all, but it's not like I have to sit in the holy sweet spot in order to fully grasp Beethoven.

There has been an odd trend these last 10-20 years where we find our fellow audiophiles trying to rationalize our fun hobby into some righteous form of obsequious genuflecting to the altar of the high end. It smells more of excuse than exaltation.

Really, you need to hear the subway in order to grasp Bellafonte at Carnegie Hall? Does anybody really care where to dog bark images on "Amused to Death?"

Let's not confuse a sonic fetish for true musical love.

Jack L's picture


I like yr humour !

Nooooobody should ever question whatever you love, be it yr companion or your music.

Again like my elder son, a classical piano first-class honour graduate from our city's Royal Conservatory of Music (founded 1886) when he was only 18. Yet till today, he never owns any HiFi. He enjoys his laptop minispeakers music at home & his iPhone earbud music-to-go.

Love of music is not defined on whatever audio hardware being used.

Likewise, Yours truly loves the sound of the 5W+5W ClassA triode SE power amp (my home-brew with 2 twin-triodes, each driving 2 power pentodes, each trioded using my speical "plate-screen grid split potential" topology - most likely never ever used by any brandname triode/pentode power amps !!).

With 3 active subs on, this little 5W+5W triode David rocks my 700sqft basement audio den playing firecrackers, like Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture, Beethoven's "Ode of Joy", Symphonie Fantastique, etc etc.

No bank-wrecking 'audiophile brandname' equipment ! Yet it delivers !

So am I allowed to be called an 'audiophile' ? I don't give a rat's ass !

Knowledge is power !

Jack L

cognoscente's picture

Isn't everything an illusion? A relationship? Democracy? Justice? Equality? All concepts in our head (to make life bearable until and because of death). And indeed, there is not such thing as "absolute sound" because everything is subjective. There is no reality or truth, at most an agreed upon or at best an approachable greatest common denominator

Stefan-air's picture

I am a registered psychologist who works closely with a think-tank on the implications of neuroscientific insights in both organisational and individual contexts and being involved in the HiFi industry. The topic Brian outlined so well is close to my heart. Although I would prefer not to refer to the left and right brain notion that at best is an accessible analogy of how the brain works (based on my understanding of current understanding from the evidence in the field of neuropsychology) but rather highlight the integral working of the brain, where various systems and processes are working holistically together to create meaning of sensory stimuli, the take-aways are still the same. I often refer to how “intend”, that of the artist, and this is very much in the subjective domain, is relayed and transformed by a closed and mechanical system (recording and hifi chain), and then finally decoded not by the speaker in the room but by the listener through both unconscious and conscious processes (once again therefore in the highly subjective domain. Not only memories but also sub-conscious content influence how we “create” the meaning of what we experience.
Furthermore, our senses are most likely working, not as stand-alone processes but rather in sync with an intricate interplay amongst them in creating meaning as we start to understand from the studies of Synesthesia. The insights from Quantum physics, for example, the uncertainty principle, also known as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, is another topic that could be part of this conversation. Loosely interpreted in our field of interest, it reads for me as follows; we can either focus on the sound or the music, but probably very difficult to do both simultaneously.

All this and much other evidence from various scientific disciplines should be factored into the discussions of music reproduction in our homes and lives. Although I fully understand the value of the contribution of the empirical school, the measurement approach and attempts by those who want to bring some rigour to our field of interest, I think we should guard against a narrow view and a mechanistic approach to the challenge. If we are going to be scientific, we should embrace all the sciences and not only those that suit our paradigm.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Loosely interpreted in our field of interest, it reads for me as follows; we can either focus on the sound or the music, but probably very difficult to do both simultaneously.

We can intend consciously to make that focus but it is an illusion.
Since all central processes access the sensory input and, in turn, will affect each other, the quality and nature of the sound will be incorporated into what we believe we are hearing. In addition, so will the influences of memory and mood.

T.S. Gnu's picture

…brought about by your statement, “…the quality and nature of the sound will be incorporated into what we believe we are hearing.”

How would you fit Beethoven, who was deaf, into this paradigm if the quality and nature of sound requires incorporation. Heck, for that matter, would mister clinical psychologist say that Beethoven was unable to be moved by the music that he composed? After all his exposition of the Ninth and the focus of the entire column on what listening can do, is there an implication that Beethoven, himself, could/did not enjoy his own compositions?

…and some agreement…” so will the influences of memory and mood"
Indeed, a glass of a fine beverage and pleasurable company will provide a greater upgrade to the listening experience than most of the cables that Reichert extols the virtues of…at a far lower cost, I might add. (◔‿◔)

Jack L's picture



At the end of his premiere of Symphony Nine in Vienna 7 May 1924, Beethoven who was completely deaf did not know he was a few bars off with his back still facing the audience which already started to applause. It was the contralo who came over to Beethoven & turned him around to face the applausing audience !

He got standing ovation 5 times with hats & handkerchiefs throwing in the air.

So how come a deaf man could have created one of the supreme achievements in the history of music world ????

That's why I said earlier the left-right brains interaction science preached by whoever psychologist here is a "strawman proposition".

Jack L

Jim Austin's picture

Holding Beethoven up as typical of anything is a bit silly. Like many, probably most, other composers--Bach is probably an even better example--Beethoven's music existed in his mind in ways we cannot know or relate to. For Beethoven, surely, the music existed in some abstract space--plus, he intimately knew the orchestra's timbres and textures even if he could not hear them anymore, and even if time had altered his memory of those perceptions in complicated ways. How we respond to Beethoven's music has little to do with how he responded. (Who's to say that he responded at all on that occasion, other than some relief at having made it through, and perhaps some gratification at the audience's response. (Beethoven was also deeply concerned about money; he was surely gratified to see that the concert was very well-attended.)

That audience's response, though, is difficult to explain in any other way, it seems to me, than similar to what Dr. Richardson describes. I say that having recently heard the piece played (and sung) at Carnegie Hall, by a masked orchestra and choir (!). Perhaps the left-brain / right-brain formulation, though rooted in real neuroscience, is a bit simplistic; I cannot say without studying the scientific literature. It nevertheless captures the complexity of my experience recently seeing, and hearing, the 9th including the "Ode to Joy," this ecstatic paen to freedom, performed by a great orchestra in a great (if imperfect) hall (Carnegie), muffled by masks.*

Indeed, the greatest support for the perspective offered here comes from my own, regular experience of music. The process Dr. Richardson describes simply feels like how my mind works when I experience new things.

Jim Austin, Editor

* I fully support masking, though I was surprised by this decision. In any case, my opinions about masking didn't change the fact that my response to this performance was complex, involving both sides of my brain in obvious ways.

Jack L's picture


Like other walks-of-life, music composers needed money (except having a salary job like J.S.Bach) for their living (who does not ?). Mozart was the best known as money concernig composer, IMO.

Beethoven was keen to premier his 9th Symphony at Berlin. But he thought that musical taste in Vienna had become dominated by Italian composers such as Rossini. When his friends and financiers heard this, they urged him to premiere the symphony in Vienna in the form of a petition signed by a number of prominent Viennese music patrons and performers.

So what makes you think he was so "deeply concerned about money"? Whoever performers don't want to see a full-house attendance let alone Beethoven.

"How we respond to Beethoven's music has little to do with how he responded"

That's no good, my friend. Surely you heard of Sue Thompson's "Sad Movies (make me cry) in 1961 - sharing the singer's feeling. If you don't try to "respond" to the composer's feeling & thinking thru the performance, what is the point of attending any concerts at all. Go fishing then.

FYI, I own over 10 LPS of the 9th Symphony, but I still not that happy. I am searching for the right LP that will give me the visualization of the distinct positioning & powerful expression of joy of the 4 lead vocalist, particularly the dramatic basso profondo (low bass).

By streaming the same symphony performances onto my 4KUHD TV with sound to my DAC/audio rig, I can gauge how close to live performance my home audio can bring me, in term of instrument positioning, imaging, soundstage & tonal balance. So that I can improve it accordingly.

Maybe my brain is still not mature enough to perform any scientific enalysis of old & new music I hear. So I don't bother any brain washing as long as I enjoy my music.

Listening with own ears is believing

Jack L

T.S. Gnu's picture

“Holding Beethoven up as typical of anything is a bit silly.“
The author did not do that; he was instead holding him in the highest regard — at least, his composition was held in high regard — hence, even more important a point to address. I was merely responding to that comment. As editor, I hope you caught that.

"Bach is probably an even better example"
But…wasn’t used by the author.

"How we respond to Beethoven's music has little to do with how he responded."
How you respond to music has little to do with how any other reader responds to music…after all, you get tetchy at live performances with "distractions" from audience members; many others don’t, ergo how they respond to music has little to do with how you do respond. Arbitrarily grouping and ungrouping people when convenient is a rather bizarre foundation to stake any claim on.

The crux of the matter is that either: a) you are claiming that he didn’t "feel" his music, or b) Beethoven did indeed feel his music and the "sound" wasn’t part of that process. The latter is merely a logical conclusion at odds with the premise of the column, which is why I posed the question in search of clarification.

"For Beethoven, surely, the music existed in some abstract space"
Yeah…it’s the same for everyone. Especially when we are remember a musical event or song without any audio input. What’s your point?

"he intimately knew the orchestra's timbres and textures"
Assertions without evidence are dismissible without evidence…and that is quite an assertion. Considering the timbre of acoustic instruments varies…just play two guitars…that is, indeed, quite the assertion.

"Beethoven was also deeply concerned about money; he was surely gratified to see that the concert was very well-attended."
This statement along with last two are exemplar of what appear to be non-sequiturs that you often make, that upon closer reading, don’t really add to the discussion because it is unclear what exact point you are attempting to make with them.

"Perhaps the left-brain / right-brain formulation, though rooted in real neuroscience, is a bit simplistic"
It is. Although different signalling neutrons reside in each half, and we do use one side for processing those signals, the trope that we are "left-brained" or "right-brained" has long been discredited. Considering the glucose requirements to power even the resting brain, it would be an enormous evolutionary mis-step for person X to be "using their left-brain more" while person Y does the opposite; thankfully this is not the case.

"I cannot say without studying the scientific literature."
It would be immensely helpful if this position were held when some of your other columns on digital audio are written.

While the column discusses listening with the whole brain, it would be delightful if the entire organ were utilized when communicating as well, instead of just using the bit that feeds us information supporting out biases and filters out that which doesn’t; it would make for a better world, imho.

Jack L's picture


Indeed, "it would make for a better world"

Jack L

ok's picture

..hard, soft, warm, cold, full, thin, direct, deep, dynamic, compressed;
there is just no way for one to communicate one's inner aural experience without a metaphor.

Jack L's picture

....... and analyze it scientifically arises from the differing functions of the brain's right and left hemispheres." qtd B Richardson.

Listening & eating are 2 vital human functions, hopefull nobody would disagree to.

Eating is more complex than listening, IMO.

Our sensing of eating is derived from our brain sensing the look, smell & taste of food. That being the case, do we need to worry about which parts of our brain in analyzing "scientifically", say, the quality, the origin & degree of contamination of the food being eaten?

Not even any neutritionists would ever do such scientific analysis of food, let alone psychologists, IMO.

So why music listening should get involved in whatever scientific analysis by our brain as suggested by a psychologiist here ?

A strawman propostion or what ? Hopefully my ignorance would not wash my common sense logic down the drain !

Jack L