• Mai Abe, MT-BC

Three Ways Music Affects Our Brain

Music has an effect on us whether we’re aware of it or not. When I was working in a restaurant, my boss told me to play loud, fast music so that we could get people to eat and leave faster. I was doubtful of this at first but...it actually worked. I even looked at different nights when we played slower music and tables turned over almost 15-30 minutes faster with fast music than with slower music.

I always knew that certain music made me feel a certain way. I would play fast, upbeat music when I was working out, or I would play instrumental lo-fi beats when I was studying. What I came to realize is that even though we all experience music differently, there are also commonalities that we all share.


Music and the Connection to Language

Generally speaking, the left hemisphere of the brain is known for more analytic and serial processing while the right hemisphere is for more holistic processing. However, music has been shown to activate visual, motor, and coordination areas on both sides of the brain, as well as areas that are involved in memory and emotion. This means that it can have a direct impact on language and syntax. A really famous example of how this works is Gabby Giffords.

Gabby Giffords was a politician that was shot in the head during a constituent meeting in 2011. She consequently had aphasia, which is the inability to speak due to damage in the left hemisphere of the brain. Music therapy was credited as one of the therapies that most helped her regain her speech. They began with humming songs that she would remember, such as “Happy Birthday”. They then started adding words to the melody, then taking the melody away altogether. This helped pave the way to rewiring the language centers in her brain.

Research has shown that phonological awareness (being aware of the sound structures of words, which is crucial for reading and writing) is closely related to pitch awareness and musical experience. This suggests that preschoolers could benefit from a program of musical training to increase their phonological awareness.

Another research study showed that Mandarin speakers, whose language depends largely on different pitch fluctuations, are highly sensitive to small pitch changes and interval differences. Conversely, those with tone-deafness had a harder time than others picking up on pitch changes that were used to create meaning (a question vs. a statement). This shows how important the basic aspects of music (pitch and melody) can be in understanding speech patterns in language.

Creating Music Can Make Us Smarter!

We’ve all heard of the Mozart Effect. Apparently listening to classical music as a child is supposed to make you smarter. Though this has been mostly debunked over the years, it is actually true that music can make us smarter! I’ve mentioned several times how the skills you learn in music can be transferred over to non-musical areas. Music can improve our motor skills, help us identify and process our emotions, make us more aware of how we interact with each other, etc. A study by Dr. Sylvain Moreno found that 90% of children who received musical training over 20 days showed improved verbal intelligence. Taking music lessons as a child seems to encourage improvements in “fluid intelligence” (ability to solve new problems and find patterns in new situations), anxiety, and awareness of self in a group context. It’s clear that being involved in creating music can positively impact our lives and set us up for success.

Music as Pain Relief

A research review study in 2015 has shown that patients that listened to music during or before a surgical operation were less anxious, had less pain, and required less medication than those that had routine care.

We’re not quite sure why or how this works, but one theory is that music might help inhibit our stress levels and might alter the individual’s sensitivity or awareness of their pain. Music that listeners enjoy also stimulates dopamine production, which could control both physical and social pain. It’s important to note that JUST LISTENING to music had a huge effect on pain perception in these patients, which demonstrates how powerful music can be. Another explanation could be that music can be a distraction from the pain. It provides a rhythmic structure to release tension, and a stimulus for deep breathing, which all can allow for better pain management.


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