You probably do it every day: pop in your earbuds during your commute or flip on tunes in the car. But what is actually happening in your head to let you hear — and belt out — the likes of Bruno Mars or the Beatles?

Dr. Charles Limb knows. A surgeon and a musician, Limb has put jazz musicians and freestyle rappers into fMRI machines to study how musical creativity comes about. In the video above, Limb shows how sound gets in our heads and brains.

Ben Folds’s brain on music

Earlier this month, Limb joined Ben Folds and the National Symphony Orchestra in an off-the-cuff demonstration of musical creativity and how it comes about in Ben Folds’s brain. STAT then sat down with Folds and Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and musician, to talk about how Folds thinks about the music that he makes.


“When I’m playing something musically, often I’m not really aware of the choice that I’m about to make until I’m depressing the keys and it’s happening at that moment,” said Folds. “A lot of the work is your brain’s circuits translating thoughts into gestures,” said Levitin. “There are motor planning centers in the brain that are anticipating what movements you’re going to need to make next.”

In the video below, Folds and Levitin talk more about the brain’s metronome and how music keeps you from getting mowed down by cars on the street.

Ben Folds sits down with Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and musician, to talk about how Folds's brain lets him make music. Dominic Smith, Jeff DelViscio/STAT

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