While listening to music, our minds often wander to recollect past memories, to anticipate the future, and to immerse in fictional worlds. This tendency to engage with spontaneous thoughts and images that are unrelated to the external environment and naturally flow over time is commonly known as “mind-wandering” or “daydreaming”. Mind-wandering is an incredibly omnipresent mental phenomenon and daily-life studies have estimated that people mind-wander up to 50% of their waking time and across a wide range of activities. The content and the form of mind-wandering episodes are highly modulated by the characteristics of the mind-wanderer and the context in which such spontaneous thoughts arise. While mind-wandering has been studied extensively across several contexts, such as reading, driving, memory testing, and learning, revealing a complex balance of costs (errors in task performance, impaired reading comprehension) and benefits (enhanced creativity and planning of future events), music offers a yet under-explored realm with considerable potential for maximizing the positive outcome of this mental activity in everyday life.

Current research in the Durham Music & Science Lab focuses on: 

  • identifying the best methodology to assess the frequency and content of music-evoked mind-wandering, drawing on a wide range of behavioural and neurophysiological methods
  • the role played by listener characteristics and acoustic features in shaping mind-wandering episodes
  • visual mental imagery as a form in which mind-wandering occurs in musical contexts
  • the relationship between music, mind-wandering & creativity


Taruffi, L., Pehrs, C., Skouras, S. & Koelsch, S. (2017). Effects of Sad and Happy Music on Mind-Wandering and the Default Mode Network. Scientific Reports7(1): 14396. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-14849-0

Summary: Can music shape the type of thoughts we experience and their content? In this paper we show how music evoking different emotions, such as sadness and happiness, modulates mind-wandering levels and activity of the default mode network (the main brain network responsible for spontaneous cognition).

 Media Coverage

Pacific Standard, “A new theory as to why we love sad music”, November 2017.