Your Brain’s Natural Rhythms: A Q&A with Neuroscientist Jessica Grahn


You step into a crowded subway coach, grab a corner seat and plug in your earphones. As you tune into your favorite music, you find yourself transported to a different world. You are oblivious to the bustling of passengers and the static PA system inside. Everything’s just perfect.

Isn’t music something you turn to time and again to uplift your mood after a bad day? And not to forget the high you experience as you’re ushered into a glitzy nightclub playing the latest dance tracks! A few seconds, and you find yourself tapping your feet, feeling the rhythm, and grooving to the beats.

Why does music make us want to move? Why don’t ordinary sounds we hear in everyday life have the same effect on us?

Scientists are now beginning to explore some of these questions. Brain World spoke to cognitive scientist Jessica Grahn on what neuroscience has unravelled about music’s effects on the brain over the last few years. Grahn, a musician herself, is an associate professor at the Brain and Mind Institute and runs the Music and Neuroscience Lab the department of psychology at Western University, in London, Ontario. Before that, she was at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, U.K., as well as worked as an associate lecturer in biological psychology at The Open University.

Brain World: How did you get into studying the neuroscience of music?

Jessica Grahn: I had an interest in the brain for a long time. Even in high school I thought the brain was a cool thing, and liked to read about it. I was also a musician and trained as a classical pianist. At that point, I didn’t know whether I wanted to do neuroscience or music.

So, I went to a university that would allow me to do both. At the end of university, I thought it was a lot easier to be an amateur musician than an amateur scientist. So I decided I would carry on with the science research and do music in my spare time. When I started my graduate training, I realized a lot of what I was attracted to in terms of topic areas had to do with music. My Ph.D. advisor and I settled on studying rhythm. He is a neurologist interested in motor and movement problems, and we thought there might be interesting overlap as rhythm is something people move to.

BW: You are also a musician. You play the piano and the cello. Does that help with your research? Does everyone in your lab have a musical background?

JG: It certainly does help. I don’t think it’s a requirement to have a background in music to do what I do. I have people in my lab who do not have a musical background, and they are very useful in explaining to us what they think a normal person might think of when we play certain rhythms to them. For me it’s definitely helpful to have a musical background to be able to characterize the stimuli that we are using, develop the tests of musical training, or look at how well people reproduce rhythms. But I also find it important to have a nonmusician perspective so we can double-check. Someone who has no musical training can tell me whether everybody does that or it’s something only musicians do.

BW: What are some of the hottest topics in the neuroscience of music today?

JG: In the last few years, there has been an explosion of interest in the study of rhythm, in particular using rhythm for health and exercise. For example, scientists are using it with people with movement problems and trying to work out the best type of music for them. Another hot topic: Can we predict what music people will buy on the basis of how they respond to it? There’s a lot of work looking at musicians’ brains, in the context of plasticity. Researchers are asking: How can we use music to alter brain function in new ways? For example: Can we use music in a way that enables people to recover from stroke faster when they have language problems or things like that?

BW: You have focussed a lot on rhythm in your work. What has your research revealed so far?

JG: One of the first things that I found out was, even though we think of music and rhythm as being mostly about sound, when you look at how people’s brains respond when listening to music and rhythm, we see a lot of activity from movement areas in the brain. Even if people are staying still — they are not tapping or counting, bobbing their head along — and if they are listening to rhythm, we tend to see the areas of the brain that process movement responding automatically. This is true whether you have musical training or not.

BW: The media is forever abuzz with the Mozart effect, the idea that if children listen to Mozart they will turn out smart. What does the research really say?

JG: It is a big issue in the literature. In the first study that tested the Mozart effect, the researchers found that when you listen to Mozart for 10 minutes versus listening to a relaxation tape or sitting in silence for 10 minutes, you did a bit better on some tests. The effect only lasted about 15 minutes. They actually never tested children in that initial study. Nobody had shown that this had any effects on children. It was just something the media picked up on. Several studies have been conducted afterward with all kinds of music, and what they find is that it’s not that Mozart does anything for your IQ — it’s the listening to something. It could be rock music or classical music. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be music.

It could be an engaging story — anything that increases your mood. When you are in a better mood or a little bit more energetic, it tends to improve performance on tests. This is a short-term effect, so there’s no evidence at all that babies and children listening to any kind of music perform better cognitively in terms of intelligence in the long term. We know when we test people generally that their mood makes a huge difference. If they are depressed they will perform poorly on all sorts of cognitive tests rather than if they’re happy or in a good mood. It’s slightly different if we are talking about musical training. Musical training does seem to have longer-lasting effects that may transfer beyond music.

BW: What about attention?

JG: Studies have found that if you are doing a boring and simple task, listening to music can improve attention to that task. If you’re doing a complicated task, some people find that music is distracting. It depends on what you’re doing and also to a certain extent who you are. Some people are used to listening to lots of music in the background and it doesn’t affect them so much, but other people find it very distracting if they are trying to focus on something.

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