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The Effects of Music

Caroline H's picture

Music is without a doubt a universal language that transcends time, generations, and cultures. It makes for good entertainment, interest, and constructive pursuit that enriches the lives of whomever it touches. Some researchers believe that our natural, almost universal predisposition to the enjoyment of and emotional reaction to music is hard-wired into us – that it has always played a pivotal role in helping humans develop their minds and relationships with others. One writer suggests, “ Babies are born with musical wisdom and appetite, music facilitates well-being and returns people to well-being from mental and physical impairments – it is deep in our genetic structures” (1). Anthropologists have found that music probably also contributed to the coherence and maintenance of social groups, as it encourages bonding and emotional communication with others. Certainly, we find that this is true for us today: music is another way to connect with others who have similar tastes and interests, and it provides the backdrop for many social interactions. The music helps to reach deeply into our minds even more than we know; many studies have found some physiological bases of our profound relationship with music.

A neuroscientist at McGill University found that cascades of processes in the brain triggered by classical music ultimately result in the secretion of dopamine. MRI scans revealed that first, the forebrain did sorts of calculations and analysis of the piece's structure, which caused several areas to begin the scretion of dopamine. Additionally, the cerebellum, which also controls movement and physical coordination, “[reacted when] the song produced tension” in the process of determining what future patterns or melodies might be used later in the song (2). The dopamine that is released in the brain can explain why music can often provide mood elevation: when the brain successfully recognizes the patterns and variations in a given piece of music, the cascades are triggered, essentially rewarding the brain for making the recognitions. An author writes, “By tempting us with fragile patterns, music taps into our most basic brain circuitry and activates our most primal emotions” (3). On the other end of the spectrum, I wonder how the brain and its reward circuits might react to genres of music in which rules are more loosely defined, or even completely gone as in jazz or experimental music. These genres of music certainly have many happy listeners, but how might the kinds of physiological effects differ from the ones brought about by classical music?

Some other responses that are triggered by the dopamine cascades include very acute memories of favorite songs. One experiment involved asking people on the street to sing their favorite song and results found that the margins of error for both tempo and pitch were quite small (4). Another experiment involved playing two or three seconds of songs and participants were asked to identify them. Most were easily able to recognize the songs, given that they knew them to begin with (4). Besides MRI scans that have helped to recognize which circuits are activated, gamma band activity also show mental engagement in music. Groups of adults and children listened to a note or sequence of notes played by a single instrument (e.g. violin, piano). Oscillatory neural activity, which is “shown to accompany a variety of cognitive processes” and executive function, occurs much more in adults who have some kind of musical training and also in children who have only had one year of musical training. Such activity was not significantly present in children and adults without musical training.

This physiological activity is manifest in such ways that allow music to become a useful tool beyond just a source of entertainment. The commonly referenced “Mozart effect” - that classical music can help to raise IQ, improve spatio-temporal reasoning, and aid in mental development overall – is one of the purported effects that some people claim Classical music can have. While this theory has garnered much criticism (especially over its commercialization and intense marketing), research of music on the mind shows that there do exist many uses of music. Some researchers suggest that “music training has an effect on cognitive functions such as spatial perception, attention, and memory extending beyond the domain of music training itself” (5). Music can provide cognitive and even physical rehabilitation for patients with various neurological disorders. Some neurologically-afflicted patients have improved cognitive function including better memory, attention span, and mood elevation while listening to music. Aphasia patients are encouraged to speak with sorts of musical therapy. In terms of physical rehabilitation, researchers at Colorado State University have created rhythmic patterns similar to the patterns found in human kinestheology. This helps to give patients a better sense of timing, which leads to improved control over spatial positioning (5).

Overall, music has provided, since the very beginning of human history, a surefire way for mental and social development. It strikes us in very emotional and profound ways that resonate with our experiences in our daily lives. From this deep effect, we are able to use music to our advantage when we wish to enrich and improve our lives as well as those of others. Music is a way to connect with and help the people around us to further the human condition: it is another one of the threads that connects societies today as well as those of their past.