Your Brain on Music


By Oliver Engel | Blogger | SQ Online (2013-2014)

If you’re like me, you probably listen to music for a specific reason: Kanye West to get pumped up, Mozart and Bach to study, or any other style just to enjoy yourself and have something to occupy your mind.

Just take a look at library walk around lunchtime, where there is a sea of people plugged into their phones, using music as motivation to make it through the day. But music is much more than a way to toy with emotions: it has fascinating biological effects on humans, and not just in terms of changing how you feel. Certain music can alleviate symptoms from conditions like Tourette syndrome and Alzheimer’s, promote cognitive development in young children, and actually cause structural changes in your brain.

You’ve probably heard about the “Mozart Effect,” the idea that exposure to classical music at an early age actually promotes improvements in mental ability later in life. Unfortunately, most recent studies have shown that this isn’t the case–but it’s actually something much cooler! A 2009 study by Hyde et al. found that children who are exposed to learning an instrument actually have brains that are structurally different from those who don’t learn to play. The study notes that musical training increased the size of the part of the brain responsible for “motor planning, execution, and control of bimanual sequential finger movements as well as motor learning” (Hyde et al.). This is because of the exceptional plasticity of the human brain at an early age, something that allows us to rapidly learn language, mannerisms, and other cognitive functions.

Perhaps the strangest effect of music, however, is how it can treat detrimental human conditions like Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America claims that “when used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements” in patients with the disease. This is a shocking revelation: there is no doubt to the idea that music has the ability to change our brain chemistry in huge ways.

The Foundation notes that one reason for the positive effect on patients is that people often form extremely strong connections with certain types of music and even certain songs; playing music from an individual’s early adulthood has the potential to trigger mental “activation” in someone afflicted by dementia. The video below illustrates an example of this “activation” and goes more in-depth as to why it occurs.

So why does this all matter? Well, music turns out to be a universal mode of communication: we can all tell when a song is depressing or cheerful, no matter what language we speak or where we’re from. This presents a question that is really tough to answer: is music intrinsic to our nature, or is it a purely human invention? This article from The Atlantic provides a debate between two university professors, who argue their best cases for answering this question (and as of right now, we can’t really say one way or the other!).

We all listen to music, but rarely do we think about why we like what we like, and why we respond the way that we do. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of answers here–but that’s the point of scientific research! Music is an amazingly complex subject and its biological implications are even more astounding, providing a glimpse into the intricate nature of human beings and the many things that we have yet to learn about ourselves.

Sources/Additional Reading

Oxford University article on the “power of music”

Study on the structural changes of the brain involved with music

Debate over the intrinsic nature of music

Boston University article on the “memory-boosting” effects of music in Alzheimer’s patients