Brain Boogie: Music and Your Brain

Does music just entertain us, or does it actually help us survive?

Does music just entertain us, or does it actually help us survive?

Musical Miracles

A doctor, with a guitar strapped over his shoulder, enters the room of a stroke patient in a neurological clinic in up state New York.  Bertha, who recently suffered a stroke to the left hemisphere of her brain, sits in silence in her wheel chair facing the window. The doctor greets her with a “good morning”, but there is no response from Bertha. She has lost the ability to speak as a result of her stroke, so she sits there silently, yet her eyes indicate she has so much to say. Silence continues to fill the room as doctor settles his things and adjusts his guitar so he can begin to play. As he begins to strum the guitar an interesting thing happens – the room comes to life. He sings out “Hello, how are you today?” and the Bertha sings back, “I am feeling fine, thank you. It’s good to see you again.”  As soon as Bertha realized she could sing, she realized that she could communicate again, something that she was unable to do just a few seconds ago. [Power Pop, Glausiusz. 2008]

The Meaning of Music

Much about music and our brains sill remains a mystery to neuroscience. We are still uncertain about the purpose of music. Some psychologists hypothesize that music is rooted in our evolution and is a differentiating factor in helping us procreate. Others theorize that music has healing powers, like witnessed with Bertha, and that it plays a vital role in stress regulation. And some cognitive psychologists believe that music is nothing more than beats and notes that serve no major roll than simply to just entertain us. As a musician (don’t beat me up, I play the violin) and a neuroscientist I have a profound respect for the entire spectrum of the musical experience.  In my experiences with people and music there is something powerful, emotional, and deeply unconscious that links music, the brain, and people together.

School of Rock

To investigate the mystery of music researcher Sandra Trehub has set up a lab that focuses primarily how babies perceive music.  The reason being is that if there is some innate musical ability in our brains a baby can perhaps shed some light on this phenomenon.  Interestingly enough in tests babies were able to acknowledge the incorrect notes played in a major scale, and what’s more impressive they were able to do this better than adults.  It’s as if they were better attuned to the building blocks of music. Music is vital to caring for children. It helps them learn and can be extremely resourceful in daily tasks like helping the child fall asleep. Maybe we were born to rock?

Marketing Music

It would seem that corporate America has caught on to power that music has over consumers. Millions are spent each year to brand specific types of music for specific stores. Businesses like Starbucks, Banana Republic, and Urban Outfitters are among some of the major names to brand a style of music to their stores. Some major corporations have evolved their old jingles into a specific musical scale that is not only catchy, but also is consistent with their marketing message. Jewel Osco has been testing a pentatonic scale that plays twice in ads; once at the beginning and once at the end. Rush Healthcare also does the same thing using the famed classical piece Cello Suite No. 1 by Bach.

Multisensory Music

Music affects each of us in unique ways. Aside from hearing the music, you can feel the music, and even become entranced by the music as you lose yourself completely. Music has the ability to connect with us on several levels at the same time, and it’s because of that we form strong connections with certain songs. Music has the ability to remind us of certain people, a certain time in our life, or a certain feeling. Most artists will pour themselves and their emotions into their work and when it all comes together it can form an emotional link to the listener. And as we’ve discussed a few times on this website if you can bring an emotional element to an experience or a memory it stands a better chance of being recalled in the long term.  Studies have shown a link between music and recalling past memories in elderly patients.

Music In, Stress Out

I will always remember coming back to my room my sophomore year of college to find my roommate, Adam, laying on the couch in complete darkness listening to a live Dave Matthews Band concert that way playing loudly on the stereo. Puzzled, I asked him if everything was okay. He said he said this was his stress relief when he feels really overwhelmed. So I closed the door and left to finish my studying at the coffee shop. Little did I know that Adam was on to something.

Research supports that music does in fact lower stress, both in listening to music and creating music. In one study cortisol, a hormone that is linked to stress, was shown to decrease in test subjects that spent time playing a drum along with music in a group setting. In other studies the same effect was reached with just listening to music. When cortisol levels remain high over time people run the risk of becoming ill because their immunes systems are weakened. If music helps keep cortisol levels low it may help keep us healthy in the long run.

Maybe it's the music? Maybe it's the rose petal bath? Either way she looks pretty stress free...

Maybe it's the music? Maybe it's the rose petal bath? Either way she looks pretty stress free...

The Mix Tape Connection

I have several friendships that were started on the basis of music. Creating music with people is another creative outlet to understand and connect with one or more people. After all, conversation is 90% non verbal. When you “jam” with other people you’re forced to speak a new language and to create something completely unique. In keeping with the theme of social intelligence you are forced to listen to others before you play, which is key to forming mutually beneficial relationships. However, simply just sharing music (legally, of course) can improve relationships as well. We’ve all made a mix tape for a special someone at some point in our youth. Sometimes music can emotionally express what we simply cannot or are scared to express. In some cases music is the bridge over a relationship gap.

Behold the mix tape. The muscial vessel of emotions and feelings of repressed teenage love.

Behold the mix tape. The muscial vessel of emotions and feelings of repressed teenage love.

Decrescendo

Though I have provided some facts on how music is beneficial to our brains the jury still remains out on the purpose of music. I firmly believe with all this information it is impossible that music is just simply for our entertainment. Music is pumped through the loud speakers of our sports stadiums to get the fans excited. Music is used to praise god, rouse armies, and bury the dead. Music reaches us in ways that no other experience can and it can help us get through difficult experiences in our lives. Although we are just beginning to understand the link between music and our brains it’s safe to say that we might never completely unravel the mystery of music. Some things, however, are better left to mystery.