This is Your Brain on Music

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As studies and technology advance, so does the depth of research on the correlation between music and the brain. In recent years, researchers, primarily in music and psychology fields, have conducted more and more research to explore the correlation. William Rosar is in the preliminary stages of creating an institute for Film Music studies here at CSULB. He is also the editor of a scholarly publication called The Journal of Film Music. Currently, Rosar is a research associate at the Center for Brain and Cognition in the department of psychology at the University of California, San Diego.  

Generally, what is happening to your brain as you listen to music? Are there brain structures specialized for just music?

“Because music is something heard by the portion of the brain called the auditory cortex having to do with hearing and the processing of sound is involved much as it is when we listen to speech.  Though there is no special ‘music center’ in the brain, recently it has been found at MIT that a select population of the brain cells in that area specifically respond only to music. This is not surprising when one realizes that our primate ancestors originally had no special ‘speech’ centers in the brain, as they are called now, because they did not speak. Rather, these areas were probably involved with expressive vocalization and hearing it, such as cries and hoots -- what ethologists call ‘ululation.’ One theory has that our primate ancestors first ‘sang’ before there was language, as can still be heard in jungle Gibbons who sing.”

Are there any benefits of listening to music before you sleep?

“Obviously, it depends upon the type of music. Quiet, restful music promotes relaxation, whereas loud, bombastic music would lead to arousal and tend to keep one awake -- that’s a ‘no brainer,’ you might say. If music is arousing, your whole body responds, not just your brain. The same applies to music that helps to quiet your body and brain -- which is soothing.”

We always hear listening to music can positively affect your brain while you study. Is there any research to back this up?

“It depends upon the type of music. There was the famous ‘Mozart effect’ years ago that claimed listening to his music promoted the development of intelligence, specifically spatio-temporal reasoning. That gave rise to the popular TV program Little Einstein, which featured classical music and kids in different problem-solving adventures, though not just with Mozart, but with classical music in general. The jury is still out as to whether there is any long-term benefit or just a short-term one involving positive mood and general cortical arousal.”

Why is it that we always hear that listening to classical music is best to listen to while doing something?

“There was a Polish mathematician-philosopher named [Józef Maria] Hoene-Wronski in the 18th century who claimed that ‘music is the embodiment of the intelligence in sounds,’ meaning that the classical music of his day embodied intelligence, like intelligent purposeful behavior, what today we would call ‘embodied cognition.’

While at a recital playing music of J.S. Bach, I remembering having the distinct impression that I was listening to intelligent discourse, something like reasoning, and then it occurred to me that it might be explained by the fact that Bach modeled his music on the principles of classical rhetoric, which pertained to how to present a convincing argument through logic. So, that pertains to thought processes, not just sound per se.”

In 2014, the documentary “Alive Inside” explored how music affects the brains of people who suffer from memory loss. Has there been any other significant studies made in seeing how music can help those suffering from memory loss diseases?  

“Reports continue to confirm the beneficial effects of music on memory. It is not unlike physical therapy in rehabilitation. Music patterns [give] brain activity in a meaningful way, just as the patterns of physical movements do in exercise, and this has been called neural patterning.”

As a professor, what genre of music or songs do you like to listen to get you focused or help you do other things?

“Personally, I like music that is evocative and stimulates my imagination and creativity, preferably without words, but through feelings. So, I like a lot of the music by impressionist composers such as [Claude] Debussy and [Maurice] Ravel for that reason. Debussy talked of music as reflecting the ‘mysterious affinity between nature and the imagination.’ A lot of film music has much the same effect.

Is there anything else you would like to add on the subject?

“We only now have the imaging technology to really probe the secrets of the musical brain, though what we are finding tends to confirm what most of us already know—which is that there is something special about music, and that probably reflects our ancient evolutionary past and the process of communicating feelings to each other. Right now, V.S. Ramachandran in our research group at UCSD is starting to investigate possible neural correlates of the ancient ‘ragas’ of India, which are something like musical scales, but are thought to embody ‘rasa,’ an essential mental state or dominant emotional theme of a work of art or the primary feeling that is evoked in the person that views, reads or hears such a work.”