Music on the Brain

Better Living Through Chemistry

Photo by REX//Phanie (987117a) Colored MRI scan through the brain and EEG.

The human brain, full of its folds and electric highways and chemical conversations, brews in the skull like a micro-universe, hailed by many as the most complex organism in the known universe—the ever-expanding, macro one. When scientists and researchers began opening the doors of how music affects the brain, no one was quite prepared for how thoroughly integrated music is in our brain activity.

Early studies surprised no one in arts education when they showed that children who received music training had a larger growth of mental activity than children who had no music training. Children learning music scored higher on IQ tests, performed at higher proficiencies in math and were generally better socially adapted. Later studies further confirmed that music training promotes focus and enables some people to hold their concentration better. Evidence mounted that music education fostered the mind, body and spirit, and, eventually, some brain researchers began to speculate that our relationship to music predated our formation of language. Studies showed that infants understand the “grammar” of music quite naturally, proving music is not so much an art form as it is a developmental component of our biology. It’s in our wiring: we’re born with a nervous system prepared for tunes.

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Life got easier for researchers peering into music’s effect on the brain when imaging technology (like MRIs) improved. Suddenly, we could see areas of the brain igniting like a strand of blinking holiday lights when Mahler or Mingus or Madonna piped into our ears. Listening to, creating and playing music fire all the major regions of the brain, activating almost every possible cognitive function. Studies over time showed that the brain changes shape as the result of exposure to music. Now that discovery was mind-bending.

These findings shifted music from its status as life’s lagniappe into a mystifying, powerful tool in forming the human experience.

Psychologically, music produces pleasure, fear, comfort and an array of emotions that can also alter our perception of the world. The power of music is not to be underestimated or written off as merely an emotional response: music inspires the brain to release certain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Music changes our brain chemistry, which affects our emotions, which shapes our perception, which determines our reality.

A colored 3-D MRI scan of the brain’s white matter pathways traces connections between cells in the cerebrum and the brainstem.

In an even more telling study, researchers pitted music against anti-anxiety drugs in pre-operation patients, and they discovered that the patients who listened to music had lower cortisol levels (the hormone secreted to deal with stress) than the group who took medication. The implication was clear: music was a better drug. If you’ve ever wondered why we listen to sad songs when we’re feeling blue instead of happy tunes, it’s because sad songs reassure us that we’re not alone in our feelings as sad music encourages the brain to release prolactin, the hormonal tranquilizer found in mother’s milk.

Music has the power to induce trance states in individuals and groups, the latter a phenomenon that famed author and neurologist Oliver Sacks acknowledges as an actual enmeshing of collective nervous systems: somehow the music transduces separate participants into a shared energy. Think Grateful Dead show, tribal ceremony, Springsteen concert or hip hop cipher. Music literally binds people together.

No doubt brain science will continue to illuminate the intricacies of music within our personal mini-universes, and we will continue to marvel as new insights emerge into the influence of music on our intellectual, psychological and emotional well-beings. As we continue to delight in Beethoven’s 9th and rock out in our cars on the drive home from work, we can also imagine the electric light show happening as we participate in our natural birthright that is better living through chemistry.


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