Music and your Brain

music_brain1It seems there’s still a long way to go when it comes to significant neuro-scientific studies regarding music, but a few functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have shown some interesting, if not completely surprising, results.

A study on whether patients fared better listening to music, as opposed to taking anti-anxiety drugs before surgery, found that music worked a lot better in reducing stress and cortisol levels than the drugs. To draw some really significant conclusions, studies now need to try out different types of music and sounds, as well as different anti-anxiety drugs, to home in on reliable anti-stress therapies. The next album you buy may be titled: ‘Anti-stress music – Certified by XYZ’. There would have to be calming driving sounds as well fitted in all cars…

Another recent, if limited, study led by the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, focused on the pleasure derived from music, and what people liked. Brain activity was measured when 60 excerpts of music, unknown to the listeners, were played, and each person was asked to say how much they would pay for each piece of music. The study found that increased activity in the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in forming expectations, directly related to the amount listeners were willing to pay. Activity in the superior temporal gyrus on the other hand, is formed by the genres people listen to over their lifetime, and affect the pleasure derived from different kinds of music. None of this is earth-shattering. But it does support the premise that the more of a particular genre a person listens to, whether by choice or not, the more that person’s brain adapts to the genre and derives increased pleasure from it.

Interestingly another study featured in the European Journal of Neuroscience, found that there were distinct similarities in peoples’ brain functions when listening to music, regardless of experience and back-ground. “Despite our idiosyncrasies in listening, the brain experiences music in a very consistent fashion across subjects,” said Daniel Abrams, lead author and postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Again the study was small scale, and involved playing 4 symphonies from the Baroque period to a small group of listeners and measuring their brain activity. Among participants, the researchers found synchronization in several key brain areas, and similar brain activity patterns in different people who listen to the same music. This suggests that on a basic level of processing music we’re very similar after all.

The premise that playing Mozart to babies makes them more intelligent has since been disproved, but it seems almost impossible that the sounds we hear in the womb don’t play a big part in forming our aural pleasure centres and receptors. Recent studies have shown that babies recognise the language rhythms of people who speak the same tongue as their mother, long before they are able to speak, and are drawn towards them. Similarly Western cultures are not exposed to quarter tones, and even if we can understand them on a theoretical level, they don’t entirely sound pleasant to our ears. Many Oriental cultures, on the other hand, have been brought up with quarter tones and easily assimilate them as part of their pleasure centre.

I look forward to further studies. It seems a lot are needed. I wonder how the study of including various lyrics for example would affect results.

Does it seem possible that music will be written according to neurological testing in the future? I wonder…

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