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Under the Influence: Your Brain on Music

Whether you're cruising down a stretch of coastal highway to Joni Mitchell, or humming an Irish lullaby to a fussy baby, or squeezing out an extra mile or two while running to Green Day, or perusing the Sunday paper over scones and Schubert, music has a unique ability to affect how we feel. It pumps us up, it calms us down. It can make our heart swell with joy or reduce us to a puddle of tears. Harmony, melody, and rhythm can even act as a time machine, bringing memories vividly back to life. So how is it exactly that music has such a potent effect on our psyches?

The brain is an active participant in shaping how we interact with music. Every time we perform, compose, or listen to music, it plays a game of high-level Tetris with a range of devices, harmonies, and patterns, creating emotional meaning out of the elements of sound. While music often falls under the classification of a "right-brained" activity—meaning that the act of processing it is centered on the right hemisphere of the brain, the side associated with creativity as opposed to the left side, which is more engaged in logic—the processing of music is actually spread throughout the brain. Regions involved in movement, attention, planning and memory consistently show activation when exposed to music, although these structures have nothing to do with auditory processing itself.

As part of the temporal lobe, the auditory cortex takes in information from the ear and assesses the pitch and volume of the sound. Other parts of the brain deal with different aspects of music. Rhythm, for instance, is only connected in a relatively minor way to the auditory cortex. A lot goes into keeping even relatively simple, regular beats. Tapping along to basic rhythm brings in the left frontal cortex, left parietal cortex, and right cerebellum, and more unusual rhythms bring in still more areas of the cerebral cortex and cerebellum.

Tonality, the building of musical structure around a central chord, is another crucial part of musical understanding, and it reels in still more parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex, cerebellum, and many parts of the temporal lobe all go into our ability to recognize the tone of a given piece of music. Taken all together, this means that music already brings in three out of four of the lobes of the human brain—frontal, parietal, and temporal, with only the visual processing occipital lobe unaffected. But wait. Another intriguing side effect of listening to music is the activation of the visual cortex. Research indicates that some music can provoke a response in this part of the brain as the listener tries to conjure up appropriate imagery to match the changes and progression in the music.

These are just the basic mechanical aspects of listening to music. A good song can trigger a cascade of secondary responses too, often involuntarily. An obvious example of this is the impulse to move in time with music—not so much dancing, which is an active, independent process, but simple motions like tapping one's toe along with the song. This is caused by stimulation of neurons in the motor cortex. Mind effectively blown yet?

Okay. Let's dispense with the neuroscience and take a far less dry look at how music messes with our minds, shall we?

Music as a Drug

Music triggers activity in the nucleus accumbens, the same brain structure that releases the "feel good" neurochemical dopamine during sex and eating. Dopamine also drives addictive behavior. From an evolutionary standpoint, music doesn't contribute to our survival or to proliferation of the species, unlike food or sex, yet music and its effects are evident across virtually all cultures, suggesting it satisfies some sort of universal need. In the same way that a drug-induced dopamine surge leaves you craving more, music becomes addictive. The dopamine tells your body it was rewarded and creates a desire to seek out more. Like sex, food, and drugs, we often turn to music to anesthetize, to celebrate, and to relax, among other things.

Potential Health Benefits of Music

Sure, listening to music feels good, but can that translate into physiological benefits? According to Daniel Levitin, a psychologist who studies the neuroscience of music at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, the answer is yes. Levitin and his colleagues published a meta-analysis of 400 studies in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. In one study, participants who where about to undergo surgery were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs. Scientists tracked patient's ratings of their own anxiety, as well as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The results showed that the patients who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than people who took drugs. Although more research needs to be done to confirm the results, they point toward a powerful medicinal use for music.

Levitin and his colleagues also found evidence that music is associated with immunoglobulin A, an antibody linked to immunity, as well as higher counts of cells that fight germs and bacteria.

Ear Worms

You know those song snippets that get stuck in your head? Well, they have a name. Scientists call them "ear worms." Doesn't matter if it's a favorite song of yours or one you don't particularly like, these melodically and rhythmically simple song segments play over and over in your head as if on a loop. Although not much is known yet about why they happen, research is making headway as to what might be going on when they happen. "What we think is going on is that the neural circuits get stuck in a repeating loop and they play this [song] over and over again," Levitin says.

A common method of getting rid of an ear worm is to listen to a different song—except, of course, there's always the chance that that song might plant itself in your thoughts for awhile.

In rare cases, ear worms can actually be detrimental to someone's everyday functioning, according to Levitin. There are people who can't work, sleep or concentrate because of songs that won't leave their heads. They may even need to take the same anti-anxiety medications given to people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, drugs that relax the neural circuits that are stuck in an infinite loop.

Music and Muscle

Many people listen to their favorite music when working out. Certain types of music can motivate you to run faster or help you push past fatigue, giving you a better workout, while other music will help slow you down, which is especially useful when doing interval training or when cooling down. Listening to music while exercising can also improve your performance and increase your endurance.

Additionally, research has shown that listening to music while exercising boosts cognitive levels and verbal fluency skills in people diagnosed with coronary artery disease, a disease which has been linked to a decline in cognitive abilities. Signs of improvement in verbal fluency areas more than doubled after working out to music compared to that of the non-music workout session.

Moving to the Beat

It appears that humans are the only primates who move to the beat of music. In an article by Elizabeth Landau for CNN, Aniruddh Patel, a Senior Fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California, speculated that this is because our brains are organized in a different way than our close species relatives. Grooving to a beat may be related to the fact that no other primates can mimic complex sounds.

Patel's research with a cockatoo suggests that beat responses may have originated as a byproduct of vocal mimicry and play a role in social bonding. Armies train by marching to a beat, for instance. Group dancing is a social activity. There also are studies showing that when people move together to a beat, they're more likely to cooperate with each other in nonmusical tasks than if they're not in synch.

"Some people have theorized that that was the original function of this behavior in evolution: It was a way of bonding people emotionally together in groups, through shared movement and shared experience," says Patel.

Another exciting area of research is the effect music with a beat seems to have on people with motor disorders such as Parkinson's disease. "[It] helps them walk better than in the absence of music—patients actually synchronize their movements to a beat," says Patel. "That's a very powerful circuit in the brain. It can actually help people that have these serious neurological diseases."

There's also some evidence to suggest that music can help Alzheimer's patients remember things better, and that learning new skills such as how to play musical instruments might even stave off dementia. According to Dr. Charles Limb, Associate Professor of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery at Johns Hopkins University, although there still needs to be more research conducted in these areas to confirm, he is hopeful about the prospect of musical engagement as a way to prevent, or at least delay, dementia. "That's a pretty amazing thing that, from sound, you can stimulate the entire brain," Limb says. "If you think about dementia as the opposite trend, of the brain atrophying, I think there's a lot of basis to it."

Music and Emotion

Despite variation in any given person's life experience, studies have shown that music listeners largely agree with one another when it comes to the emotions presented in a song. Advertisers use this fact to exploit music in many commercials to make you excited about products. As a result, you may associate certain songs with particular cars, for instance. We attempt to alter our moods by chanting during meditation, and we tend to listen to something more upbeat and energetic when primping for a night out on the town. Christmas carols are an excellent example of how music can manipulate our emotions. No matter when I hear "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," be it July or December, I am overcome by the warm-and-fuzzies inherent in the Yuletide.

Music carries a tremendous ability to provoke emotional responses. This process seems to start early, too. Researchers at Brigham Young University found evidence that infants as young as five months are able to discern when a happy song is playing, and by nine months, they've added comprehension of sad music to their repertoire. Interviewed in 2008, BYU music professor Susan Kenney explained what the babies were responding to:

"The happy songs were all in major keys with fairly short phrases or motives that repeated. The tempo and melodic rhythms were faster than any of the sad selections, and the melodies had a general upward direction. Four of the sad songs were in minor keys and all had a slower beat and long melodic rhythms. For an infant to notice those differences is fascinating."

Music as Language

Music helps kids remember basic facts, such as the order of letters in the alphabet, partly because songs tap into fundamental systems in our brains that are sensitive to melody and beat. Educational shows such as Sesame Street have been using the power of music to help youngsters remember things for decades. Even babies have been shown to be sensitive to beats and can recognize a piece of music that they've already heard.

"The structures that respond to music in the brain evolved earlier than the structures that respond to language," says Daniel Levitin. He also points out that before there was writing, many of our ancestors used music to help them remember things, such as how to prepare foods or the way to get to a water source. These procedural tasks would have been easier to remember as songs. In Judaism, the Torah was set to music as a way to remember it before it was written down. Today, we still use songs to teach children things in school, like the names of the 50 states, for instance.

As far as children leaning to play music goes, Victor Wooten of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones isn't a scientist, but he has thought a lot about the process. For him, introducing a child to music shouldn't be different from the way a child begins speaking. "I just approach music as a language, because it is," Wooten says. "It serves the same purpose. It's a form of expression. A way for me to express myself, convey feelings, and sometimes it actually works better than a written or verbal language."

Traditionally, a child learns to play music by being taught how an instrument works, and learning to play easy pieces that they practice over and over. They might also play music with other beginners. All the rules come first—notes, chords, notation—before they play. "But with language, young children never know that they're beginners," Wooten says. "No one makes them feel bad when they say a word incorrectly, and they're not told to practice that word dozens of times. Why should it be different with music?

"If you think about trying to teach a toddler how to read, and the alphabet, and all that stuff, before they can speak, we'd realize how silly that really is," he says. "Kids most of the time quit [lessons] because they didn't come there to learn that. They came to learn to play."

The Power of Music to Unite

Music also has the power to unite people, notes Daniel Levitin. "It's not our natural tendency to thrust ourselves into a crowd of 20,000 people, but for a Muse concert or a Radiohead concert we'll do it," he says. "There's this unifying force that comes from the music, and we don't get that from other things."

Music not only unites us in a concert setting, but also at gatherings like weddings, Sunday mass, sports rallies, parties, etc.

Music and Memories

Part of the reason that music tends to be so meaningful to us is that it's deeply intertwined with memory. Because the brain is so completely engaged in listening to music, it's one of the parts of a situation that is remembered most clearly later on. Songs and pieces of music can serve as powerful triggers for memories. You're more inclined to like a particular piece of music if it carries positive associations and vice versa.

I clearly recall a summer day out in the sands of Wildwood, New Jersey, when I was barely school age. I remember the heat of the August sun pinching the skin of my shoulders as I lay on a blanket, flanked by my parents. I hear the ceaseless roar of the ocean and the ice cream man crying "Fudgsicles! Get your Fudgsicles here!" as he wends his way through sunbathers. And crackling from the transistor radio at blanket's edge is Herman's Hermits' "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am," the music that anchors this memory. On the rare occasion that I hear "Henery the Eighth" these days, I'm transported back to that afternoon of my childhood. A wondrous thing, that. What are some of your earliest music memories?

The profound connection between music and the brain has long fascinated scientists and philosophers alike, who are still trying to figure out what goes on in our heads when we listen to music. Our relationship with it is powerful and more multifaceted than we know. Music can change our brains in ways both obvious and so subtle that we can barely comprehend what's happening.

For additional reading on the fascinating subject of music and neuroscience, you might want to check out This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin; Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks; Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh Patel; Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination by Robert Jourdain; and Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr for starters.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Daniel Levitin, Elizabeth Landau, Aniruddh Patel, Dr. Charles Limb, Susan Kenney, Victor Wooten, and Alasdair Wilkins for their insights on this complex topic, which I drew heavily from when writing this piece. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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