Music Changes the Brain
When people think of music, they usually think of it as a powerful experience that is unique to them, and more of an art than a science. Many people are unaware that it has the ability to change the development of the brain in young children, involve almost every part of the brain, and even release hormones in the brain related to immense pleasure. In past years, scientists have posed these questions, but lacking the knowledge and equipment were unable to test this. Within the last year, a number of tests were conducted at various locations around the world, discovering more and more about this unique experience that has had humans obsessed and intrigued. Music is a very enthralling and complex occurrence that has been proven to engage most of the brain, connects emotionally with people, and changes lives through improving memory, speech, and other use-dependant structural changes in the brain.
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On the contrary, it makes music a much more difficult thing to master. Even after grasping the basic of a piece, such as notes, timing issues, and coordination with other musicians, they then have to be conscious of tone, volume, and emotional effects such as change in tempo and timbre. These different aspects of music are handled by different regions, using functional segregation in order to play or even listen to music. Listening to music starts with the subcortical structures, the brain stem, and the cerebellum. It then moves to the auditory cortices on both sides of the brain. Remarkably when a person is listening to music they are familiar with, additional regions are involved including the hippocampus which relates to memory and subsections of the frontal lobe. Tapping along with music, or even just thinking about the beat, involves the cerebellum’s timing circuits. Performing music, regardless of what instrument played, involves the frontal lobe for planning movements as well as motor cortex and the sensory cortex which provide feedback that the correct note was made. Recalling lyrics occupies language centers. Furthermore the brain is engaged in the emotional aspects of music and lyrics, involving additional regions.
Although there is a whole industry in music which is based merely on finding which tempos, tones, and drum beats induce pleasure, the majority of the listeners are unaware of this. Science has proven that the more musically involved a person is, the stronger that region of their brain is. Therefore, they are more likely to pick up on it when listening to a piece of music. On the contrary, when a non-musician listens to a piece of music, they are unable to pick up on these aspects because of a weakness in that region of the brain.
However, the ability to distinguish one instrument from another remains in most people. The sound from an instrument is actually a series of overtones played simultaneously to create a single note. The difference in frequencies of these overtones is what illustrates the difference between a trumpet and a guitar. Therefore, subconsciously, the brain is calculating the frequencies each individual overtone to determine what instrument is being played [Levitin].
Furthermore, when a single instrument is being performed and an error is made, it is immediately brought to the listeners’ attention and taken note of. Although they might not be conscious of it, the listeners’ brain has already determined the key in which the song is being played, as well as possible chord progressions, and when a note does not fit into a chord, it is noticeable. Depending on the musical training of the person listening, sometimes they can even identify an incorrect note within a concert band or orchestra.
Incidentally, while listening to enjoyable music, the human body reveals all the symptoms of emotional arousal. For example, the pupils in the eyes dilate, blood pressure rises, and even the electrical conductance of the skin is lowered. The speed of a composition, measured in beats per minute, coincidentally is generally about the same range as a human heart beat. Consequently, a faster song has been proven to increase pulse, and likewise a slower song relaxes the human bodies pulse. In addition, the cerebellum, the part of the brain associated with body movements becomes active, even when simply listening to music. When people listen to a melody with a strong beat, their entire spinal cord reacts to the rhythm, showing the beat patterns on the computer screens of testing machines.
Studies have shown that while listening to music, not only is most of the brain in use, it also increases blood oxygenation levels (BOLD) in the brain. After examining recent positron emission tomography (PET) scan studies, it has been concluded that this is related to a release of dopamine in certain regions of the brain. Dopamine is the “pleasure” hormone of the brain, released when eating chocolate, having sex, snorting cocaine, or other similar activities. In other words, music can be viewed as an addiction, that is only subdued when playing or listening to music. Various people have commented on this theory, saying that they have indeed felt that they could not live without music.
In order to make the top ten greatest hits list, a song must be appealing to listen to. Although this seems like a simple concept, it involves provoking anticipation, surpassing expectation as well as prediction, and resolving a melodic pattern all in one song. Anticipation in music is similar to the rising action in a short story. As the anticipation is building and growing stronger, this is when the most amount of dopamine is released. But, in order to captivate the listener into the music, that sense of anticipation needs to be resolved, or else it can leave the reader feeling tense or edgy. As well, when a piece of music is resolved, it gives the brain a sense of reward, moreover causing more dopamine release. When composing his symphonies, Beethoven would save the resolution for the very last chord, causing the brain to stay engaged while waiting for that reward of the resolution.
Generally, if a piece of music is too predictable in pattern or rhythm, it can become annoyingly boring. When music is predictable, the brain can become uninterested and inattentive. Dopamine neurons can quickly adapt to predictable rewards, therefore not becoming engaged. As a result, people do not get excited when listening to music in which there is little anticipation, and easily resolved. Many young musicians often rely on the lyrics to captivate the listener’s attention, ignoring the equally necessary progression of chords that adds to the anticipation and building that the lyrics already portray.
Some people claim music makes them smarter. Many parents expose classical music to young children in hopes of having a future Harvard graduate. As Donald A. Hodges, a professor of music and direct of Music Research Institute at the University of North Caroline explains, “The brain: Use it or lose it. The more education you have, the more the interconnections in the brain. Music changes the brain.” Thus when scientists have analyzed the brains of musicians and non-musicians, they have found substantial differences.
Scientists use the term neuroplasticity to explain the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of training and experience. “The effects of music training suggests that, akin to physical exercise and its impact on body fitness, music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness and thus requires society to re-examine the role of music in shaping individual development,” a Northwestern University representative states after numerous tests. Scientists have been able to link musical training to enhancement of language, speech, memory, attention and even vocal emotion.
Many people assume that the difference between musicians and non-musicians end at one plays music and the other doesn’t. Not many realize that there are actually structural differences in the brain, varying functional differences and even changed volume of gray matter. The brain, just like a muscle, can develop based on use-dependant routine. As a result, musicians have shown to have greater amounts of gray matter in motor, auditory, and visual-spatial brain regions. Functional differences of a musician’s brain have been tested through comparing professional piano players to a control group [Krings, Topper, Foltys, and Erberich]. They were instructed to perform a series of complex finger movements while their brain activity shown on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment. It showed that pianists had lower levels of cortical activation in motor areas of the brain. This concluded that less neuron needed to be activated, due to long term use in this type of practice.
When parents spend countless hours playing classical music around the house for their toddlers, it’s good to know all that effort isn’t going to waste. A study conducted within the past few years found that playing music in the background for a group of four year old preschoolers for six months changed their brain structure substantially. The children that had experienced the music had significantly greater interhemispheric activity and range coherence than the control group. As well, these children had better intrahemispheric coherence within the left hemisphere of the brain. If a child is exposed to classical music before the age of seven, it greatly increases the size of the corpus callosum, which helps improve ability to incorporate sound patterns when learning a language [Strickland]. Musically inclined children also have an advantage in long term memory, pitch changes in speech, larger vocabulary and reading ability.
Some researchers say that music is an ability engrained in the matter of the brain, as old as the rocks and stones of the planet. Even though numerous studies have been conducted, there is still so much mystery behind the collection of sounds that has caused this human obsession. Scientists have been able to discover what areas of the brain are activated while listening or playing music, as well as how they can become emotionally connected to a song. Finally, one of their most important results was the change in the development of children’s brains due to exposure to music. Music changes the brain.
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