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Decoding music’s effect on the brain

| May 2, 2012 | 0 Comments

Sam Norton

A & E Editor

 

Music is more than a beat that has the ability to catch attention. Music is everywhere. From an early start, music is introduced into our lives in every medium. It’s the melody a mother sings to serenade her fussy baby to sleep. It’s the song an individual will sulk to when their heart gets broken. It’s that beat that is used to help one power through an intense workout. Music is a compilation of daily life that reflects the emotions, struggles, and encounters of everyday.

But how does music actually affect your brain?

According to “The Mystery of Music” by C.J., Dr. Catherine Loveday, a neuropsychologist and life-long musician, “Music is fundamental, universal and ubiquitous.” Virtually every part of the brain is affected by music. “From the cerebellum, involved in movement and rhythm, to the amygdala, associated with emotional learning,” Loveday said.

But how does music affect these parts?

Dr. James Chesebrough, assistant professor of music at Keene State College, said music impacts individuals in a physiological way. “Your heart rate goes up or it may go down, so a change in the heart rate. There is a reason why women have always sung to their children because it has a soothing effect and it changes physically. If you have exciting music with a heavy beat that can also excite you,” he said.

Loveday in “The Mystery of Music” said that the fact that music and sex trigger activity in similar parts of the brain shows that music is a fundamental human activity.

Once activity music fundamentally helps with is the process of communication.

“It (music) allows for shared communicated, a common language, and a shared experience,” Chesebrough said.

However, music is not just a universal language, music also has the potential to evoke emotion out of its listeners. Dr. Craig Sylvern, professor of music at Keene State College, said, “It has an emotional effect. If you hear something that is sad sounding, you don’t want to get up and dance.”

Music is our eardrums vibrating. It’s that one element that is present in our lives that crosses all borders. There is something for everyone to find in music—whether it is used to drown their sorrows in melodies that offer a sense of grief, or music that offers a feeling of happiness—music is the one element that bonds society together, gives them a common ground.

In “The Mystery of Music,” Loveday said, “It’s that shiver down the spine you get when you listen to a particular moment in music.”

“I’ve had opportunities to play in many different styles and I have not found one piece of music that did not impact me in some way,” Chesebrough said.

However, the impact of music is more than an affect on emotions—music possess the ability to provoke memories and helps improve cognitive functions. According to the article “Neurologic Music Therapy Improves Executive Function and Emotional Adjustment in Traumatic Brain Injury Rehabilitation,” by Michael H. Thaut and James C. Gardiner, cognitive rehabilitation has become a viable force that helps improve cognitive functions in people who possess neurologic illnesses or injuries. Music therapy is a way that people who have neurologic damage have rehabilitated.

According to the article, music as a language of cognition and perception helps stimulate physiological responses.  Chesebrough said that his friends who use music therapy as a form of rehabilitation say it does affect a person’s level of distraction and helps one to focus.

“I have a friend whose job is to go to senior care places where people are not mobile anymore and all she does is go in and sing to them and the physicians say that it does have an effect,” Chesebrough said.

This is because music and rhythm engage the motor system and regulate an individual’s perception and cognition.

“I think all music has that ability to impact because of how it affects us physiologically. That’s why I would never throw out any type of music as not being good,” Chesebrough said. But music is used not only as a way to stimulate cognition; music has also been shown to increase memory performance.

Thaut and Gardiner argue in their article, “Other studies have shown the positive effect on memory in dementia and learning disabilities. Many clinical reports have emphasized the relative survival of musical memories in neurologic memory disorders.”

“Much as our sense of smell can trigger memories from long ago, hearing an old song can make you think of something that you hadn’t even realized was in your memory,” Chesebrough said.

This is because music is a foundation that introduces a variety of sensory stimuli. According to Thaut and Gardiner, music embeds functional tasks into the structured auditory arousal process through music’s three-dimensional structure.

For some, these functional tasks range from working out to completing a heavy workload. “When I was a student, I used to have music going on while I worked,” Sylvern said.

Junior Chelsey Watson said that when doing homework, listening to music that possesses a soothing tone helps her power through the work she needs to complete.

“It helps me focus and concentrate. It has a good tone of music to be on the back burner, but not distract me,” Watson said.

Like Watson, Chesebrough said that music plays a role in increasing one’s concentration levels and ability to focus. “I would agree that classical music can help people focus, but I think that rock n’ roll can also help people focus, and it’s going to be different in the situation and what you are trying to focus on,” Chesebrough said.

But if music affects one’s ability to concentrate does it possess the power to influence a person’s actions?

In a study done on the effects of jazz music, it was argued that jazz music led to an increase in promiscuity in young women. “The process was this: they listen to the music, they get all excited, then they go outside smoke cigarettes, and everything goes down hill from there. Now that’s ridiculous,” Chesebrough said.

But this theory is not applied to all genres of music. Music that contains controversial lyrics has the ability to persuade its audience. “I do think that in some of the misogynistic lyrics of contemporary rap music I think that could have a negative effect,” Chesebrough said,

“I don’t think it would change their personality. I think it might reinforce some consistencies of personality.”

But Loveday argues that this response to music and lyrics is learned through an association people have with music. “As Tilbrook demonstrated at the piano, the iconic two-note repeat from the movie Jaws still has the power to unnerve people,” Loveday said.

But whatever the rhythm is, music is one element that composes our daily lives.

Whether it be as an outlet, a way to rehabilitate, or a way to compose functional tasks—music is a never-ending record that helps shape the stories of everyday lives.

Loveday said, “It’s those little changes, those little violations of our expectations that make the heart flutter and cause us to respond.”

 

Sam Norton can be contacted at

snorton@keene-equinox.com

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