©Arlene R. Taylor PhD

The normal human brain is a musical brain. According to Dr. Norman Weinberger (University of California at Irvine), studies show that the brain is calculating complex musical relationships, setting up musical expectations, and detecting evaluations of these expectations even if the brain’s owner doesn’t know it, has done nothing consciously, has put forth no effort, and isn’t aware that this is going on inside his/her head. This implies that most human beings are musical and posses the brain function to “do” music at some level, although not everyone has developed the skills that permit one’s potential musical abilities to be realized and demonstrated, and not everyone is or can become a virtuoso.

Certainly, both listening to and performing music impact the brain. Knowing this, it behooves everyone to explore the study of music. It can be more important than you might think! It’s rarely too late to begin studying music, either, although the earlier in life one starts the better. It will take work.

Beethoven reportedly said, “People make a mistake who think that my art comes easily to me.” And Stravinsky commented, “The force (of inspiration) is brought into action by an effort and that effort is work.” Musical skills can only be developed through decision, choice, and exercise. Many who have studied music however, believe that it was more than worth the work.

More than 300 years ago Francois Couperin (the French composer) declared that by the age of 6 or 7, children should begin studying instruments. He was perhaps ahead of his time! Research has shown that the study of music can be advantageous to us as human beings. Following are six positive-impact reasons to study music:

1. To develop the brain
2. To enhance learning or performance of other tasks
3. To retard the onset of symptoms of aging
4. To positively impact health
5. To prevent or reduce adverse effects of stressors
6. To give and receive pleasure

1. To Develop the Brain

Ursula Le Guin put it this way, Music and thinking are so much alike. In fact you could say that music is another way of thinking, or maybe thinking is another kind of music.Research shows that the study of music can help to develop the brain, and the earlier we begin, the better (although it is rarely too late to begin)! Music can make our minds more capable, temporarily as well as long-term. Here are some examples.

• Subjects who have just listened to Mozart tend to do better on some types of reasoning tests when compared to those who heard no music at all, or who listened to unchallenging popular music.

• One study found absolute pitch in 95% of those who started music study at age 4 or younger, but in only 5% of those who began between ages 12-14. The key to absolute pitch (versus relative pitch) appears to be very early training. According to Jourdain, true absolute pitch is probably unattainable after childhood.

• Brain scans show that the corpus callosum, the nerve highway connecting the two cerebral hemispheres, is 15% larger in adults who started playing the piano before the age of 8, as compared with those who started after age 8. This can impact the transfer of information between hemispheres.

• Musicians have been found to have an average of 25% more of the auditory cortex devoted to musical processing than other individuals. The largest amount of extra music area is found in the brains of those who started to play at the youngest age. A Harvard study found that professional musicians who began studying music as young children have more gray matter in certain areas of the brain than nonmusicians. This suggests that the difference is due, at least in part, to experience.

• The rigors of musical training, during a period of immense growth and development of the brain, may help to form new neural connections within the sensory motor regions that are important in the acquisition of motor skills. Playing a musical instrument alters the brain’s ability to distinguish touch input from fingers on the same hand. It stimulates the brain to create a series of topographic maps of the body’s surface, including individual and separate fingers, in the cerebral cortex. The brain can also recruit neighboring cells to become more closely connected, and thus larger areas can be devoted to specific musical tasks. Practice helps the brain cells learn to work more efficiently together, up to a point.

Note: A condition known as “focal hand dystonia” has been identified and is being studied in the brains of musicians who play the guitar, piano, oboe, flute, and clarinet, and who suffer from this syndrome. In some cases, estimated to be about 15%, long-term repetitive practice can lead to the loss of control of individual finger movements, to a greater or lesser degree. The cells that once responded mainly to input from one finger begin to respond equally to input from adjacent fingers, those that were used together over extended practice sessions. Therapies, based on the brain findings, are being developed to deal with dystonia.

• Children who received music lessons were found to do better in arithmetic than a control group without music education. Students in 7th and 8th grade classes, whose social studies curriculum involved music and other arts, showed significant increases in positive social behaviors, increases in empathy of others, higher achievement grades in history, and reduced aggressiveness. Children aged 6-9 years, who were experiencing reading difficulties showed improvements in learning new works after participating in a program involving listening to music.

• Research has shown that early musical training has a beneficial effect on intelligence. In a 1998 study, 66 children, ages 4-6, were given a Stanford-Binet intelligence test. Afterward, half the children were given a year of music instruction, while half had none. The musically trained children performed significantly better on a subsequent intelligence test than those who had no instruction.

It’s difficult to measure more than analytical musical intelligence using traditional IQ testing, however. Musical talent can more globally be assessed only as groups of skills. Laboratory tests show that skills tend toward two groupings, somewhat mimicking the general division of skills between the left and right hemispheres of the cerebrum:

  • Fine analysis of pitches and chords
  • Rhythm and dynamics

• Studies by Dr. Tomatis of France have shown that by the 5th month of gestation the fetus can recognize familiar sounds including songs and melodies it has heard repeatedly (see comments below about Mozart). Babies who participate in a regular musical-stimulation program (e.g., Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Vivaldi) showed IQ increases of 27-30 points over infants not in such programs.

• Experiments have shown that music stimulates movement in the fetus, as well as in the newborn.

• There is some evidence that music can exercise basic inborn neural connections related to abstract reasoning. In one study, neurobiologist Frances Rauscher tested the reasoning ability of three-year-olds and found them sorely lacking. After three months of music lessons, they were snapping together puzzles and blocks quite adeptly. Listening to music is believed to sharpen spatial skills throughout life.

• PET Scans (Positron Emission Tomography) have shown that the study of music promotes the development of skills in all four cerebral modes. For example, in one PET Scan study, a nonmusician was asked to listen to a selection of symphonic music and the glucose metabolism in his brain was evaluated.

Increased activity was shown in the right posterior lobes of the cerebrum, the portion of the brain that is thought to be the native music center and associated with the enjoyment of music (see Scan simulation #1).

Subsequently, the experiment was repeated with a trained musician who was a performer, composer, and conductor (see Scan simulation #2)

There was increased activity in the right posterior lobes but also in the Left posterior lobes where the building blocks of music are analyzed (chord structure, meter, etc.). Increased activity showed in the Frontal Right lobe where the subject said he was mentally picturing a sheet of music along with the instruments being played, and also in the Frontal Left lobe that helps to coordinate the analytical perception of music.


Music Moment…

The music teacher watched the child and his mother. The boy wanted music lessons. The mother was unsure. Taking the plunge the music teacher said, “Current wisdom suggests that the formal study of music is one of the fastest ways to become whole-brained, to build skills throughout the cerebrum or thinking brain” There was a pause and then he continued. “Piano lessons with an emphasis on theory, composition, and harmony are a most effective type of study. Consequently, I encourage everyone to take piano lessons for a minimum of two years.”

“But he’s only seven,” the mother said slowly. “Although he’s been begging for piano lessons since he was five!”

“The earlier in life one begins this study, the better,” the teacher responded. “I’m sure you want to give your son every advantage.”

The boy walked over to the concert grand, commanding the entire corner of the studio. Gently he caressed the keys, a look of longing on his face. “Gramps left me his piano.” The words were so soft as to be almost inaudible. “I want to play like Gramps.”

When his mother nodded her approval, the little boy ran across the room and threw himself into her arms crying, “Can I start today?” His enthusiasm was infectious. His mother nodded again and this time everyone smiled!

2. To Enhance Learning or Performance of Other Tasks

Some studies show that learning is enhanced when individuals listen to slow movements of baroque music while studying. There may be some differences by gender, however. Other studies have shown that males tended to score higher on IQ tests when there was some distraction (environmental sounds) during the test; females tended to score higher when there was no distraction in the environment.

• In one study, participants were asked to perform a motor task, hitting targets with a hammer, without listening to musical rhythms. When an even musical rhythm was played, the participants hammered in an even and more efficient pattern. When an uneven rhythm was played, they hammered in an irregular pattern similar to that of a person unskilled at a motor task. The researchers concluded that an even rhythm helped the individuals move more skillfully and efficiently while performing the motor tasks. Can you imagine dancing, or marching without musical accompaniment?

Note: Because of these and other studies, I encourage everyone to study music regardless of age. Piano lessons with an emphasis on theory, composition, and harmony has been shown to be a very effective type of study (e.g., piano lessons for a minimum of two years even if the students move to other instruments later on). Even if they didn’t continue with formal music study, just imagine how they would have increased their potential to transfer whole-brained skills to another area of study (refer to PET Scan simulations).

3. To Retard the Onset of Symptoms of Aging

Thirty minutes of challenging mental stimulation (e.g., the study of music) is one of the two proven strategies for age-proofing the brain, and can actually retard the onset of symptoms of aging. This challenging mental stimulation can not only increase the number of dendrites (connecting fibers) on each neuron, but can also reduce the space across the synaptic gap by keeping the neuronal projections (axon and dendrites) stretched out.

Dr. Christo Pantev and colleagues (Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto) are using techniques such as EEG and MRI to observe how brain structure and function respond to musical training. If their research documents, as expected, that musical training has beneficial effects on brain function beyond that involved in musical performance, this may have implications for the education of children, for life-long strategies to preserve the fitness of the aging brain, and for rehabilitation and retraining strategies after the brain has been damaged by disease, stroke, or other injury.

4. To Positively Impact One’s Health

The inner rhythm of our mind and body can be altered by outer rhythm. That is, our bodies will adjust to an external rhythm, whether it is the loud ticking of a clock in the same room or the beating of a drum in a parade. Faster rhythms tend to excite us and slower rhythms tend to calm us. A group of individuals can be influenced when they are all exposed to the same rhythm. A fast rhythm will energize them and move them to action; a slow rhythm can decrease their excitement and diminish their will to take action.

When individuals march in a group (e.g., a parade), there is usually some music or rhythm-sound that helps them to stay together. Cadets on a parade ground follow the auditory cadences of the drill sergeant who admonishes them, “left, right. Left, left, left. Left, right” et cetera. It can help people to “stay in step” as they pay attention and their inner rhythms come to match the external rhythms.

Certain musical forms can cause the body to change its tempo. For example, music played at 80 bpm can increase the body tempo to 80 if the body tempo was slower and decrease the body tempo if it was faster. If the music is heavily syncopated (with accents placed on the second and fourth beats) the body will increase its tempo to 160 (regular tempo of 80 plus the syncopated tempo of 80 = 160). This can cause exhaustion over time. Some individuals were found to temporarily lose a third of their muscle strength after being exposed to music that contained certain types of tempo-accent switching.

Clinical studies show that the effects of music on the human organism are profound. Music has been found to stimulate nerves within the brain (stereo music stimulates more nerves than does monaural) as well as to synchronize vibration patterns within the brain and body (e.g., neuronal fields, body rhythms). These vibration effects may actually free up or unstick tissue, thus easing the flow of information. Music can stimulate receptor molecules (metaphorical keyholes located on the surface of cells) into a dynamic state of vibration, making them more receptive to specific information substances (metaphorical keys).

• Music is able to bypass the portions of the brain where conscious thought and judgment reside, and directly influence the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) that controls breathing, heart rate, and some of the glands that secrete hormones. In fact, it is impossible to listen to music and consciously override its effects on the ANS.

• Music therapy is being used extensively in the treatment of a whole host of diseases, including migraine headaches, digestive problems, cancer, respiratory problems, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, depression, and the fear/discomfort of hospitalization (especially singing with and to patients). It is also used to counteract unpleasant side effects of treatments such as injections of medication, chemotherapy, radiation, and kidney dialysis. Studies have shown that music can:

  • Speed up or slow down the heart rate, lower blood pressure and basal metabolic rate
  • Alter the brain’s electrical rhythms
  • Speed up or slow down heart rate (it will synchronize with music)
  • Influence the release of specific hormones, rate of breathing, blood chemistry, and stomach contractions (e.g., slow digestion) 
  • Increase the production of endorphins and immune globulin “A”
  • Trigger emotional states, elevate both soul and psyche
  • Reduce fear, stress, and pain perception
  • Increase feelings of self-worth and perception of control during hospitalization
  • Produce an effect very similar to hypnosis (e.g., exposure to a heavy, repetitive, rhythmic beat)
  • Promote faster weight gain and earlier hospital discharge for premature infants (e.g., Brahms’s Lullaby was used effectively)
  • Increase relaxation and comfort levels
  • Reduce blood pressure, fear, stress, and pain perception
  • Increase a sense of self-worth and control during hospitalization

5. To Manage Stress

More than 2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras advocated daily singing and playing of an instrument to help cleanse one from worry, sorrow, fear, and anger. He was ahead of the game! Although one person’s stressor can be another’s pleasure, music has been shown to reduce stress, and appears to help control high levels of stress hormones that can suppress immune system function.

• Experiments at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cleveland have shown that music reduces staff tension in the operating room.

• A study at Stanford University found that music can release endorphins, the brain’s own morphine. Endorphins are powerful substances that not only relieve pain, but also can induce a level of euphoria.

• When played for patients before, during or after surgery, music has been found to reduce anxiety, lessen pain, reduce the need for medication, and speed recovery. It actually reduced the level of stress hormones in the blood of patients. Selections from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, as well as music from Mozart and Brahms were used effectively.

• Music therapy is proving especially effective in the areas of pain management, anxiety, depression, mental/emotional/physical handicaps, and neurological disorders. It is being used to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression in patients who must spend long periods of time in otherwise sterile environments (e.g., burn patients, patients who undergo organ transplants, patients with contagious diseases that require isolation). It has also been used successfully with autistic children.

In general, slow music sedates more often than fast music, strings/woodwinds are more soothing than trumpets/trombones, and music lacking the percussion of rock or the syncopation of jazz is more relaxing than music with an intrusive beat.

6. To Give and Receive Pleasure

Pleasure resides deep in our being, but it is difficult to put a finger on exactly what it is. Some say it is the opposite of pain, although writers have spoken of pleasure so keen that it is akin to pain. Pleasure is not an absolute. It is a relative concept, and a subjective evaluation, depending on the context and the individual, because each brain is as unique as one’s thumbprint. Perhaps the sum total of who we are as individuals determines what each defines as pleasure.

• Anecdotally, individuals report that they achieve pleasure through studying music, performing, listening, or by utilizing music to enhance another activity such as exercise/dance. Some also indicate that they receive pleasure from knowing that the music they create gives pleasure to others.

• Subjective or not, pleasure begets pleasure, which enhances mood, which benefits health and well being. The key, of course, is getting on what Ornstein and Sobel refer to as the pleasure cycle, taking advantage of the many attainable pleasures when and where we can. There are many different venues to choose from. Music is one of them.

• The support of the music industry through attendance at concerts and the purchase of recordings is a type of evidence that music provides pleasure. For many, life would not be as enjoyable and fulfilling without music. Just imagine watching figure skating competitions without musical accompaniment!

Music Moment…

Oscar Wilde, the Irish writer, was both listener and a performer. When he sat down at the piano with Chopin, Wilde reportedly said, “something happens to my mind.” After playing music by Chopin he always felt “as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”

As with all individuals who perform or listen to music, Oscar Wilde understood that something happens to people around music. It can touch us at deep levels and can trigger all manner of emotions. At some point in your life you may even have felt musical chills, a sensation similar to goose bumps. Some scientists speculate that musical chills may be related to the release of specific neurochemicals in the brain when it is exposed to emotions through music.

Studies have shown that happy music tends to produce a more relaxed brain, whereas sad music tends to produce a more aroused brain. Eventually, researchers hope to discover how the brain distills emotions or feelings from a melody.

Music Moment…

Mike Ventarola, who works for a health care facility and is an online music critic, has shared an incredible story of the power of music. He wrote:

“In the health care facility where I work, there is a patient who is severely mentally challenged and who has never uttered a word in all her 38 years of life. Because her mom was both schizophrenic and abusive, protective services had to intervene. The upshot was that the daughter, I’ll call her Miss May, had been placed in various facilities throughout most of her life.

Some months ago I noted Miss May’s penchant for music. Capitalizing on that I would play music from the likes of Amethystium, Pulsar Bleu, Falling You, Sintz and Tom Aragon whenever she became agitated. Miss May would immediately calm down and make some “woo-woo” sounds.

About the same time I began to wonder if Miss May might be able to be trained to feed herself. The experts had basically agreed that this wasn’t likely feasible due to her level of retardation and kept telling me that I was probably wasting my time. In a nutshell, they had pretty much given up on her. Disliking the word “no” I plunged ahead with the experiment anyway.

It was a messy, uphill battle trying to get the spoon coordinated in her hand, not to mention a barrage of spittle, dropped food, and other messy unmentionables. I tried every technique I could think of. For example, prior to sitting with her at mealtime, I would put on some vanilla scent on my clothing to stimulate her appetite and so Miss May would be able to recognize me by smell since she had poor vision and her eyes were crossed. Each time she picked up and used a spoon I would play a song for her on the boom box just behind us. After a couple of weeks she progressively used the spoon for longer periods of time and required less of my help. As a reward, she got to listen to more songs that played longer. If she didn't take the spoon, the music stopped.

On this particular day, as with other days before, I prepped Miss May for her meal by putting a plastic bib on her. I wrapped myself in plastic as well, in anticipation of more food spillage and spittle. Placing a plate of food in front of her, I moved to the boom box and started to play a song from the HS dance and synthpop station that I burned earlier. The music would stay on as long as she used the spoon.

As I turned around from the boom box I saw to my amazement that Miss May had picked the spoon up by herself and was actually feeding herself. She only put the spoon down to swallow and, as soon that was done, picked it back up to take another bite. All while she was eating the music was playing, and Miss May was smiling from ear to ear.

Other staff members saw what was happening and dashed off to notify the doctors and nurses. The news spread like wildfire and folks came into the dining area to see it for themselves. They applauded Miss May and she seemed to really enjoy the attention.

After she finished eating, Miss May seemed to be rocking in her chair as if trying to dance. I took her out of her seat and held on to her and just let her feel the rhythm. She moved a bit spastically but you could see she was having the time of her life. I finally had to let her sit back down to attend my next meeting. As I eased her back in the chair Miss May threw her arms around me in one of the tightest hugs I have ever received from another human being.

Miss May’s wonderful little miracle was an early Christmas gift for me that year. I’m so glad that others at the facility had a chance to witness it, also. Music is powerful. It helped change life for Miss May! Where there is life there is hope, and where there is music there is healing.”