Music on the Brain

Whether it is eating a healthier diet or exercising more frequently, we often dwell on ways to improve our physical health and preserve our wellbeing. However, we never tend to think about our brain’s health or the effects of our actions on such a dominant muscle—often overlooking the importance of our mental health. Similar to how there are ways to improve your physical health by exercising your body, there are also specific activities to target your brain’s health. Research has proven that listening to music can stimulate the mind, provide a brain workout, and pose several health benefits. Not only can it reduce anxiety and blood pressure, but it can also improve sleep quality, mood, attentiveness, and memory. 

When we listen to music, sound waves are collected by the external ear and then funneled to the eardrum. As the sound waves strike, the eardrum creates vibrations, which are relayed along a chain of tiny bones in the middle ear until they arrive at the stapes (the third bone). The cochlea, connected to the stapes, is filled with a fluid that surrounds approximately 10,000 to 15,000 tiny hair cells (known as cilia). Vibrations from the stapes send fluid waves through the cochlea and result in swaying movement of the hair cells. As a result, these cells release chemical neurotransmitters, activating the auditory nerve, and send small electric currents to the auditory cortex located in the brain’s temporal lobe. 

Research through the use of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (positron emission tomography) scans suggest that various properties of music are decoded and interpreted by nerve networks in different parts of the brain. For instance, pitch (which forms the basics of a melody), chords (a collection of pitches that sound at the same time), and harmony (two melodies at the same time) are perceived in a small area in the right temporal lobe. In a nearby area, timbre—the perceived sound quality of a musical note, sound, or tone—allows the brain to distinguish the sounds of different instruments playing the same note.  The cerebellum, located at the back of the brain, processes rhythm. The frontal lobes, the largest of the four major lobes of the brain and located at the front of both cerebral hemispheres, is responsible for interpreting the emotional content of the music. 

The “Mozart effect” is a highly publicized mental influence of music that focuses on the unique mathematical abilities of several musicians. A study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, investigated the effect of music on general cognitive function. Standard IQ test questions were administered to three groups of college students, comparing those who had spent 10 minutes listening to Mozart to a group who had been listening to a relaxation tape, and another group who had been waiting in silence. Results displayed that the group who listened to Mozart performed the highest on the exam. 

Although researchers are still unclear about how music enhances cognitive performance, they conjecture that listening to music helps organize the firing of nerve cells in the right portion of the cerebral cortex, which dominates for higher functions of the brain. Music—rather, specific types of music—serves as an exercise that activates selected brain cells, enhancing the cells’ ability to process information efficiently and effectively. 

As a pianist and avid listener of various genres of music, I was curious about the effects of music on the brain and the intricate process in which music is interpreted and analyzed. I wanted to obtain more knowledge on the specific structures that are involved when we listen to music and musical phenomena. I was fascinated by the numerous structures and regions of the brain which are attuned and specialized in decoding certain musical properties.

References

“Keep Your Brain Young with Music.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/keep-your-brain-young-with-music.

“Music and Health.” Harvard Health Publishing, July 2011, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/music-and-health.

Rauscher, Frances H. “Music and Spatial Task Performance: A Causal Relationship.” 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Elaine Leung says:

    Hi Ailin, this is such a cool analysis on music’s effect on the brain. From personal experience, I guessed that music impacted our mood and sleep quality, but I never thought of listening to music as a “brain workout” or that it improves our memory! I have been exposed to Mozart’s music since I was a child, but the “Mozart Effect” was a very new concept to me as well. The study you described on it and how you detailed how Mozart music organizes the firing of nerve cells was interesting and straightforward. Great job!

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