Music to My Brain
Music is known as a universal language. It has existed for centuries around the world, and over the many years of its life, it has expanded its diversity from classical Bach to eastern Ravi Shankar to rock and roll Santana. With so many types of music available, everyone can pick and enjoy something they will like. Music is used in weddings, funerals, parties, call holds, elevators and much more; it is an integral part of the American culture and other cultures throughout the world. However, have you ever wondered what happens in our brains when we stick our earphones in and press play on our ipods?
So you picked up your ipod, put your earphones in and pressed play. Within seconds you hear the first tunes of a song. There are sensory neurons located in the ear that pick up sound waves from the earphones and convert them into electrical signals (5). These electrical signals travel down the neurons and to the thalamus of the brain, which then relays the signals to the auditory cortex. The auditory cortex is made up of three parts: primary auditory cortex, secondary auditory cortex, and tertiary auditory cortex. Each part of the auditory cortex processes the musical sounds differently. When the signals enter the auditory cortex, they first enter the primary auditory cortex. This part of the cortex is responsible for identifying the “fundamental elements of music such as pitch and loudness” (5). The signals continue on to the secondary auditory cortex where patterns of harmony and melody can be identified. The tertiary auditory cortex takes those patterns and creates the overall perception of music one experiences when listening to music (5).
There has been evidence of “lateralization” in music processing within the brain. Lateralization is when brain activity is focused on one side of the brain (1). For example, language skills are a focus of neural circuits in the left hemisphere of the brain; the left hemisphere focuses on reasoning and analytical tasks. Music processing however takes place in the right hemisphere of the brain; the right hemisphere is responsible for emotional and spatial information (1). This may be why we feel certain emotions when listening to certain music. However brain activity does not stop right there…
Let’s say the song that came up on your ipod is one of your favorite songs. It’s either catchy and makes you want to sing along and dance or maybe it’s calming and makes you want to relax and take in the moment. Many scientific studies have shown that music can activate various pleasure centers in the brain, some of these pleasure centers are associated with the pleasure derived from food and sex (4). Two scientists from Japan in a study conducted in 2004, analyzed how music can affect rats’ bodies. Other than discovering that music can lower blood pressure and help with hypertension, music can also increase dopamine synthesis in the brain (7). Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure and can reinforce certain behaviors due to the pleasure produced. This may be why certain songs become our favorite songs that we love to listen to over and over: they allow higher amounts of dopamine release which allow us to feel more pleasure and enjoy the music. However for some, music is not just about having fun anymore, it can be serious business.
Some parents pay for their children’s music lessons because they believe it will improve their grades in school, particularly in math (3). Many studies have shown correlations between talented musicians and relatively high IQ scores. Some surveys have even shown that high school students who can play instruments perform better on SATs than their peers who have not had access to musical instruments. Some believe the reason that musically inclined children can do better in school is because musical training can sculpt and sharpen motor, perceptual, and memory skills. However there can be other factors that allow musically trained children to perform better in academic settings. Wealth is an example; parents who can afford music lessons for their children may be able to send them to better schools and afford other activities for them as well (3). That can allow them to develop better academic skills and social skills hence boosting their confidence and leading to success in other fields in life.
Because music is such a calming effect on the body, it is being used in therapy, in a field appropriately called music therapy. Music therapy is used to treat psychological, psychiatric, communication, medical, substance abuse problems and more. Therapy can include listening to specific music to song writing to performance. Music therapy can be very beneficial for stress related problems; it can lower blood pressure, promote relaxed heart rates and breathing, and allow the individual to experience a meditative state (6). It’s an interesting kind of therapy that can be practiced anywhere and even if a music therapist is not present. After all, after a stressful day, you can always try to calm yourself down with a few of your favorite songs.
Music is a very important part of our modern culture and as culture evolved through the years, so did music. Since music is involved with cultural evolution, is there a place for it in biological evolution? Is it evolution that has allowed us to gain pleasure from music just as we gain pleasure from sex and food, and if so then why? Some scientists believe music plays a big role in social cohesion and “that it promotes the development of motor and perceptual skills that are crucial to survival” (1). Others believe that it is just a side effect of the development of language, especially prosody (4). Some have even compared music and evolution to sexual selection. One cognitive scientist compares it to a peacock’s tail, something that can demonstrate a potential mate’s reproductive fitness (2). This could be why some people are attracted to musicians whether it’s a piano player, song writer, or guitarist. It may even explain why people can be attracted to people with similar music tastes; perhaps music can be an indicator of compatibility?
The neurobiology of music is still being studied but what scientists have discovered so far and new applications of music are fascinating. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this research as well as how music will affect our lives later on. However for now, sit back, press play on your ipod, let dopamine take over, and relax.
1) Abbott, Alison. "Neurobiology: Music, maestro, please!" Nature 416 (2002). Nature.com. <http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v416/n6876/full/416012a.html>.
2) Appleyard, Bryan. "The Science of Music." TIMES ONLINE 2 Sept. 2007. 20 Feb. 2009 <http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article2350325.ece>.
3) Cromie, William J. "How Your Brain Listens To Music." Harvard University Gazette Nov. 1997. Harvard University. 20 Feb. 2009 <http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/1997/11.13/HowYourBrainLis.html>.
4) Jhamandhas, Asha. "How Biological Is Music?" La Scena 8 (2002). Scena.org. 20 Feb. 2009 <http://www.scena.org/lsm/sm8-2/musique_biologie_en.htm>.
5) "Music and the brain -." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 20 Feb. 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_and_the_brain>.
6) "Music therapy -." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 20 Feb. 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_therapy>.
7) Sutoo, Denetsu, and Kayo Akiyama. "Music improves dopaminergic neurotransmission: demonstration based on the effect of music on blood pressure regulation." Brain Research 1016 (2004): 256-62.