Music is part of our life. Music has had deep roots in human culture throughout history. Listening to, enjoying or playing music sometimes gives us pleasure, sadness, comfort and even touches us deeply, causing life-changing experiences. Why does music have such a powerful affect on our brain?
Music Changes the Activities of the Brain
Listening to, playing, reading and creating music involves practically every part of the brain. In the book This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin explains that listening to music first involves subcortical structures like cochlear nuclei, the brain stem, and the cerebellum. It then moves up to auditory cortices on both sides of the brain. And when you hear music, listening also involves the memory centers in the brain, such as the hippocampus and lowest parts of the frontal lobe. Tapping along with the music gets your cerebellum involved. Reading music involves the visual cortex, and listening to or recalling lyrics will involve language centers in the temporal and frontal lobes.
If you actually perform music, your frontal lobe for planning, and your motor and sensory cortex will activate as well. Because playing music requires co-ordination of motor control, somatosensory touch and auditory information, most musicians are known to have developed a greater ability than the average person to use both hands. Increased networks between the left and right brain form thick fibers that interconnect the two motor areas, an area that is larger in musicians than in non-musicians.
Because the brain has the capacity to change (called neuroplasticity), music also affects some of the brain’s learning capacities, increasing the size of the auditory and motor cortex. A research team from Utrecht University in the Netherlands also found music is associated with an improved ability for auditory imagery. Musically trained groups performed better on both a musical imagery task and a non-musical auditory-imagery task than naive groups.
Right Brain or Left Brain?
Generally music has been regarded as a right-brain activity because of its reliance on creativity. But brain-imaging research has shown music does involve both hemispheres, although a majority of activity does occur in the right side of the brain. Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) was a French impressionist composer who suffered from an unknown disease that affected his left hemisphere, leaving him unable to speak, perform complex tasks, or read and write. He also lost his musical function and could not compose during the last years of his life. In contrast to Ravel, Russian composer Shebalin and British composer Benjamin Britten both continued writing musical works although they experienced impairment to their spoken language after having sustained strokes in the left hemisphere.
Recent research into music localization using modern imaging technologies such as fMRI and PET shows playing music professionally develops analytical processes in the left hemisphere, whereas other individuals process music in their right hemispheres. There is evidence of left hemisphere predominance in musicians compared to musical amateurs. Music lateralization towards the right hemisphere is seen in inattentive listeners.
Which side of the brain engages with music can also be subject to cultural influence. The Japanese process their traditional popular music in the left hemisphere, whereas Westerners process the same music in the right hemisphere. Music and language are processed separately; they are localized in homologous regions of the opposite hemispheres.
Music Affects Emotion, Involves a Deep Level of Our Brain, and Helps Us Heal
Although music involves many areas of the brain, people listen to or play music because they like it. Research also indicates that people value music primarily because of the emotions it evokes.
In addition to a cognitive appraisal, Dr. Juslin and his team at Uppsala University, Sweden, suggested underlying mechanisms that could explain why listening to music may induce emotions, involving reflexes, conditioning, emotional contagion, visual imagery, memory and expectancy.
At deeper level, music stimulates activities of the amygdala, which regulates emotion, and even the brain stem, which is the center for many of the vital functions of our bodies such as breathing, heart rate and digestion.
Due to its unique nature, music can be an effective way to change and treat our brains. Many interesting stories have been recorded in various fields. A woman with Parkinson’s disease, for example, who was not able to balance and had difficulty in walking, could move her legs with ease while music was playing, and showed improved balance and found it hard to stop dancing.
Music therapy has demonstrated effectiveness as a way to treat neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, brain injury, anxiety and depression.
Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare in Florida discovered the benefits of music for brain-surgery patients. Live music therapy using patient-preferred music has been beneficial in improving quality-of-life indicators such as anxiety, perception of the hospitalization or procedure, relaxation and stress in patients undergoing surgical procedures of the brain.
Also, playing music such as rhythmic drumming is now used as a holistic health technique. A recent study demonstrates that drumming can induce synchronous brain activities in various areas of brain and can be beneficial for Attention Deficit Disorder, alleviating anxiety, and stress relief. It also creates a sense of bonding and connectedness from person to person in a community. This might explain why music has been widely used in ceremonial rites in most societies throughout history.
Our Body Can Be Our Natural Instrument
For some people, it may not be easy to express themselves using music. Even though we all have some innate affection for music, sometimes people, myself included, get nervous when they have to perform music. But I found a very interesting observation in Ilchi Lee’s book: our body can be our best natural instrument.
If you lie down and stay for a while in a very quiet place, you may begin to hear the pumping sound of your own heart. As the heart beats, the body is continuously generating rhythm in our lives. From the beginning, the fetus can listen to the mother’s heartbeat, and sounds of its parents. The reaction of babies to lullabies suggests that musical ability is an innate function of human beings.
Starting with tapping a foot to the music, we can develop a rhythm with our body. Practicing in the place where you won’t be interrupted and using your body as a drum can be one way to develop musical function and communicate with your brain.