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Music's Influence on the Mind

hmarcia's picture

Music has always been known to affect listeners. There are countless of example demonstrating the affect of music, and one of the oldest examples occurs in the Bible with King Saul asking David to play his harp in order to relieve him of his ‘evil spirits.’ Music has the uncanny ability to make you either cry or laugh, and during the last twenty years, there has been a flurry of research to prove that music might in fact be used as a booster to one’s mental prowess. Since the coining of the term, “Mozart effect” , there has been a serious attempt to understand the relationship between music and the mind, and to prove that listening to music can make the listener smarter. Researchers use neurobiology as the median to discover the intricate relationship of music and the mind.

The origins of studying the mind and music can be attributed to the otolarygologist, Alfred A. Tomatis. Tomatis believed that music serves as a tool that heals many of the physical illnesses of his patients (1). For Tomatis, the ear works as machine that creates electric messages for the brain, and the origins of these messages come from the sounds the ear hear (1). From this theory about the ear, Tomatis developed the ‘Tomatis Method”, which suggests listening to music with high frequency sounds (such as Mozart) in order to force the ear to produce positive messages for the mind (1). Using the work of Tomatis as its foundation, the theory of the “Mozart effect” emerged.

In 1993, three scientists (Frances Raucher, Gordon Shaw, and Katherine Ky) emerged with the results of their study, which showed that listening to Mozart increased your IQ by 8 to 9 points (2). After listening to Mozart, the test subjects all improved their spatial reasoning abilities for 15 minutes (2), and this increased converted into IQ increases. It is from this study, that the term “Mozart effect” became popularize and used by companies in order to sell Mozart CDs to mothers wanting to make their children smarter. More recent studies point to biology as the tool to explain these increases in spatial reasoning.

There are numerous studies placing people under PET scan while they listen to music (4). These PET scans prove that the left side of the brain in most people excels at processing rapid changes in frequency and intensity (5). The PET scans showed greater movement on the left-side of the brain during fast tempo music, and less movement during slow tempo music (4). The scans also detected movements on both left and right sides, which implies that both sides are necessary for the brain to analyze the music in its entirely (5). The front part of your brain (frontal cortex), where working memories are stored, surprisingly showed a large amount of movement during the scans. This implies that memories are being resurfaced by the music. This movement in the frontal cortex might explain the emotions attached often to music. These movements that occur throughout the brain of the listener explain the increase in spatial reasoning in the “Mozart effect” because movement in the brain indicate an increase in brain activity, which in turn leads to a great spatial reasoning. Without this increase of brain movement, there would not exist an increase of spatial reasoning.

Other studies have attempted to explain increase of movement in the brain as a question of hormones. Studies have confirmed that music alters the amount of stress hormones being released not only in the mind, but also in the body. The amygdala is a collection of brain cells that can be thought of as the center of the brain’s emotions. When the amygdala is active when there is a presence of stress hormones. Once again, studies have shown that music cause the amygdala to become active, therefore establishing the relationship between music and the release of stress hormones. It is these hormones that causes brain activities and leads to greater spatial reasoning. This would also explain why the “Mozart effect” lasts for such a short time. Once the music ends, the stimulus for the creation of these hormones end. Without the music, there are no hormones leading to the movements in the brain as shown by the PET scans.

Music have always affected us, and now for the first time, there is strong, concrete data demonstrating how that happens. Music appears to have the same power over us as any drug, but why? The current research attempts to explain the power of music, but what is the evolutionary process or reasoning behind it? Even the current research on the power of music need to be precise, there are a large number of studies that could not replicate the findings of Frances Raucher, Gordon Shaw, and Katherine Ky. For the time being, what is certain is that music does alter our brains by inciting hormonal activity, and this brings us one step closer to unlocking the power of music.

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Serendip Visitor's picture

Listening to music

Listening to music feels good, but can that translate into physiological benefit? Levitin and colleagues published a meta-analysis......for details.

Paul Grobstein's picture

music and the brain

I'm comfortable with King Saul asking for music to "relieve evil spirits," and agree there is more to usefully learn about the effects of music on the brain.  I'm less comfortable with the "Mozart effect."  There's a pretty skeptical literature on this that would be worth balancing the more positive literature with.