Music and the brain


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Music and the brain

  1. 1. Leo 1Alex LeoMs. LobitzAP Language and Composition6/4/2012 The Relationship between Music and the Brain I’ve always had this undeniable connection with music. The lyrics and melodies of artistssuch as Elton John and Wishbone Ash have been coursing through my veins for 17 years, and Ican sing every word to all of those songs all this time later. I’ve always pondered why it sticks,wondering what mechanism in our brain unlocks those memories over and over again,unleashing the melodic lines so dear to my heart. But more curiously, why do those songs nevercease to make me happy or nostalgic? Why do others make me tear up every time, without adoubt? The toll music takes on my brain, as well as my whole life provokes endless reels ofquestions that have been long past due to be answered. I’d like to think that music affects the development of our brains while we’re young,molding it into its own unique form. But affect may not be the right word, so much as stimulatemay be. You can walk into the band or orchestra room and find the majority of the top ten ineach class. The most intellectually curious are those with 10,000 songs on their iPod, and areable to recite that library. These observations are precise, but not far-fetched, and ones exposureto music seems to set the scene of their brain activity. I just now turned on my John WilliamsPandora station, and the points I’m trying to convey were brought straight to the front of mymind. Music presents itself everywhere in our daily lives, affecting our emotions, productivity,occupations, and thought processes. The extent to which we let it influence us is uncontrollable,
  2. 2. Leo 2because the brain takes over without any sort of permission. The tension and attraction betweenmusic and the brain is so strong and sensitive that the inevitable effects are shared throughout ourbodies and other aspects of our lives. Music has a weird way of electrifying our thoughts, makingus think about things in new terms from an almost entirely different perspective. Thisphenomenon has no name, but completely dominates my writing process; as my words find theirway to my fingertips, it’s as if the melody guides them there. While grateful for this inspiration, Iaspire to put words and definition behind it; I thirst for these answers. Music’s place inneuroscience continues to grow, and their relationship is both a mystery and an impendingdiscovery. The first notable thing taken from music is the rush of emotion behind the swells andmelodies. The rush of positive emotion is the dopamine, or endorphins that are derived fromsounds coursing through the ears. Similar phenomena are found while taking drugs or havingsex. One question aroused during the study asked, “’If you’re getting such a strong dopaminerush from music, why not make drug addicts listen to music? (Zatorre CNN)’” The answer isbecause there’s one pleasure mechanism, and music has one route into it. Drugs take acompletely different route in to get to the same place. On the contrary, these different stimulihave important different properties, and will never be interchangeable. Bad, negative, or forgettable memories are unlocked through music just as easily ascherished ones. A song with a lot of emotional attachment behind it will immediately triggerthese memories. What isn’t noted is that it’s not the music that causes a rush of negativeemotion, it’s the memory. The route from the speakers to the brain to the reaction the rest of thebody happens every time; the body isn’t the direct receptor of the music. Other negativeemotions can be felt by listening to music that sets up scenes in the mind. Any composer wants
  3. 3. Leo 3imagery to cultivate their music, especially if no lyrics are present. A love sonata often makes thelistener feel heartbreak, and deep dark sounds may cause fear or anxiety. The experience willalways differ from person to person, due to a variety of factors. Having a snippet of a song stuck in the head is called an “ear-worm”. Although not muchis known about this occurrence, scientists believe that a person’s neural circuits get stuck on aloop, replaying the same piece over and over again. The only remedy to have this stop is to listento other, less catchy songs, though there’s still the possibility that they can have the same affect.More attention is being brought to these “ear-worms” because it happens to the majority ofmusic listeners, and is damaging to the everyday life and routine of people. The opposition tonormal functioning can cause a lack of sleep, concentration and sanity. Developments ofobsessive compulsive disorders have risen, as well as anti-anxiety medication having to be used.This medication only relaxes the neural circuits, and does not make the “ear-worm” disappear forthe time being. An almost unrecognizable, but important part of actively listening to music is exercisingthe cognitive side of the brain, providing plenty of musical training, experience, and exposure,but unlocking other completely unrelated facilities of the mind. Practicing music involvessometimes-extensive mathematics: identifying patterns, counting rhythms, and reading timesignatures. More studies find that learning to play a song involves “executing a ‘motor-actionplan’: a sequence of events that must happen in a particular order (Music and the Mind)”. Neuralcircuits guide these plans, and practice only strengthens the way they are executed. Without thisimportant functioning of the brain, comprehending music would be impossible. Varying selections of music not only affect the brains functions, but other organs andlimbs of the body as well. While upbeat rhythms and unexpected twists and turns in any piece
  4. 4. Leo 4jumpstart the heart, “Classical music from the baroque period causes the heart beat and pulse rateto relax to the beat of the music (American Music Therapy Association)”. This synchronizationis a natural occurrence, a product of our brain sending signals around our body to react to ourenvironments. This relaxation allows concentration in the mind to fixate, increasing theamplitude and frequency of brain waves, which is a direct cause to why classical music isbeneficial to listen to while in the course of ones studies. There’s a reason why classical music doesn’t have the same effect as rap does, forexample. First off, lyrics in any genre of music are distracting. The mind is busy processingwords, which distracts and slows down anything else that is trying to be accomplished. If whatthe mind finds to be a good lyric or line, it will ponder it for an even longer time. Fast pacedrhythms and beats occupy a lot of space in the mind as well. The whole cognitive side of thebrain takes over, as the mathematics in music demands to be computed. These faster paced songsspeed up the heart rate, on the contrary to classical music slowing it down in most cases. With afaster heart rate, more attention and signals are sent from the brain the heart, and many timesstress and anxiety occurs, even if it doesn’t feel like that’s happening. Subconsciously, moregoes on while listening to music than people notice, which could be detrimental if somethingproductive is going on. Music can serve as a type of medicine as well. Studies show that people living withParkinson’s benefit from moving to a rhythm or beat, replacing the jerking tremors. This couldbe regarded as a type of physical therapy, though this happens through the brain. Signals ofcoordination and organized movement sent around the body serve as a loophole to the ticks andtremors of the affected. Music Therapy is used to fit the patient’s needs both mentally, physicallyand emotionally. It’s used on the basis of exposure, variety and frequency. It’s interesting how
  5. 5. Leo 5one depressed patient needs upbeat music, while the other needs sad music, both working to digthat person out of that state. Music is used in speech therapy as a method for patients who have suffered from strokesand have trouble forming their words and sentences. In extreme cases, a method called melodicintonation therapy is used. Even after the left side of the brain is damaged, where the center ofspeech occurs, patients may still be able to sing full lyrics to certain songs. With repetition, themusic is taken away, and the patient is asked to speak the lyrics. Eventually the lyrics can bereplaced with regular phrases, and "as they try to recall words that have a similar contextualmeaning to the lyrics, their word retrieval and speech improves (Music as Medicine for theBrain)". The mind processes lyrics and rhythm much faster and more efficiently than words withnothing behind them. This cognitive branch continues to advance communication, as music ismore commonly becoming considered a language. Every brain is unique but at the same time interchangeable, functioning different fromperson to person but ultimately working in the same ways. The director of Harvard’s Mind,Brain, and Education program, Kurt W. Fischer, comments, “What we find is people really dochange their brain functions in response to experience (Fischer Education Week)”. This bringsup the age-old question of nature versus nurture, in wondering if the brain is really moldable.The brain, metaphorically of course, is flexible in that it can start to behave differently after anygiven event, whether physically or mentally. A person’s ability to change stems from the brain’splasticity, which comes as a “huge surprise to a whole lot of people.” So how does general inspiration finds its way from tonal chords and violin sonatas?When Thomas Jefferson couldn’t find the right words for the Declaration of Independence, aquick improvising session on his violin led the way to one of the most profound and outspoken
  6. 6. Leo 6documents in History. When Albert Einstein was told he wouldn’t amount to anything in school,his mother defiantly bought him a violin, which paved the road for his cognitive problem solvingmastery, becoming regarded as one of the smartest men to ever live. Certain sounds, rifts, andchords unlock foothills of our minds that can’t normally be reached, allowing our greatestinspirations to stem from memories and experience. Music is a catalyst in the thinking process,bringing the reactants to the forefront to speed up the reaction, producing results that would haveotherwise never been reached. Listening to Mozart does not increase intelligence, but allows the brain to processrhythm, find patterns, and anticipate more efficiently. Given this opportunity at a young age setsup for healthy work ethic, and furthered intellectual curiosity. So would giving every infant thisopportunity ultimately cultivate a utopian society? Dr. Laurel Trainor, a professor of Psychology,Neuroscience, and Behavior at McMaster University in Ontario, insists, “From a very early age,infants have certain musical preferences (The Violinist)”. One study showed their preference forconsonance over dissonance, drawn more to Mozart, furthering the explanation of classicalmusic assisting the development of the brain and its functions. Another study focused on thebrain becoming specialized to a certain type of music after extended exposure. This “musicalenculturation” is both created and embedded, but supports the suggestion of the brain’s ability tomold. The variety of opinions and scientific studies I found made supporting my thesis difficultfor a number of reasons. People out there feel just as strongly as me about music and its effects,supporting both the opinion that it has little influence, or that its effects are never-ending, andthat the extent is vast. The relationship between music and the mind is such a broad topic thatnarrowing down questions, sources, and essential questions was disheartening. This relationship
  7. 7. Leo 7stretches so far out that the process was tedious in cutting down on what looks frivolous, but infact is just fascinating but unsupportive. Music doesn’t affect the brain; music affects the way the brain functions, stimulating anumber of activities inside. It unlocks memory, inspiration, higher level thinking, and a numberof other facilities that improve the mental capacity of any given person. The impact music has onthe way our minds function varies both negatively and positively, but enhances our brain activityregardless. Those who have to relearn how to speak and communicate do so through lyrics andrhythm. Those who need balance to walk due to detrimental disease do so through rhythm andpace. The incredibly uninspired create masterpieces for the world to share, after a lifetime ofunsuccessful, music-lacking living. Music has made me the person I am today, and I believe it is the push behind myacademic and social endeavors. I’m never more awestruck than when I hear a lyric that ties inperfectly with a situation I’ve experienced. I never cry harder than when a beautiful chordcourses through my ears, and I visualize the harmony and power behind it. The way my brain hasdeveloped and molded around music is so unique, and by far my most cherished trait. From the day we’re born, we are influenced by the way music moves us. The passion formusic I’ve developed has always been present, but I never thought about the logistics behind ituntil now. I am pleased by my findings on the way the brain functions, but saddened knowingthat not everyone can experience how music makes me feel. Music becoming more recognizedas both medicine and a language is assuring and shows how accepting society is of new methodsand ways of treatments. This open-mindedness with hopefully pave the way for continuedresearch in all sorts of fields of study. Music’s place in society but more importantly
  8. 8. Leo 8neuroscience and medicine increases in importance every day, giving a healthy outlook for thefuture.
  9. 9. Leo 9 Works Cited“About Music Therapy and AMTA.” American Music Therapy Association. N.p., June 2012. Web. 6 June 2012. <>.Fields, Scott. “Music on the Mind.” APS Observer. Association for Psychological Science , Apr. 2006. Web. 29 Jan. 2012. <>.Landau, Elizabeth. “Music: It’s in your Head, Changing your Brain.” Editorial. CNN Health. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 28 May 2012. Web. 6 June 2012. <>.Lehrer, Jonah. “The Neuroscience Of Music.” Wired. N.p., 19 Jan. 2011. Web. 29 Jan. 2012. <>.Niles, Laurie. “Laurel Trainor on Music and the Mind.” Violinist. Niles Online, 2 June 2012. Web. 6 June 2012. <>.O’ Donnell, Laurence. “Music and the Brain.” Cerebromente. Music Power, 1999. Web. 6 June 2012. <>.Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia. 2007. New York: Vintage Books, 2008. Print.
  10. 10. Leo 10Schlaug, Gottfried. “Neuroimaging Laboratory .” The Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, 2012. Web. 29 Jan. 2012. <>.Shulman, Matthew. “Music as Medicine for the Brain.” U.S.News & World Report . U.S.News & World Report , 17 July 2008. Web. 29 Jan. 2012. < news/family-health/brain-and-behavior/articles/2008/07/17/music-as-medicine-for-the- brain>.Sparks, Sarah D. “Scientists Find Learning is not ‘Hard-Wired.’” Editorial. Education Week. Focus On, 4 June 2012. Web. 6 June 2012. < FyuNZHEHMNe6I8xYyaQ8qol%2FiqTUkKeTP&cmp=clp- edweek&utm_source=fb&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=mrss>.