Music is interwoven into almost every aspect of our lives. We hear it at the grocery store and in every single video we watch. We listen to it when we exercise, and we pay boatloads of money to go see our favorite artists in concert. We love all kinds of genres, from classical and ska to rap and country. Music is present in every world culture.
So why is music so important to us? Advances in the field of MRI scanning and other brain imaging methods have offered us some biological insight into how music affects our brain.
It turns out that listening to the music that one enjoys activates the brain’s “pleasure system” – the brain circuit involved in giving us good feelings from things like eating (side note: alcohol and drugs of abuse act on this same system to produce a “high” or “buzz”). Scientists in the music cognition field have also looked into why we get chills when listening to music. Think about it: the simple act of listening to music produces documented, measurable changes in your body’s physiology. Next time you’re watching an intense action movie, stop and ask yourself, “What music is playing right now?”
Music activates many brain regions.
However, music doesn’t just activate those specific brain regions. Let’s consider this scene: a guy is at a party. He sees a guitar in the corner and thinks, “This is it. This is my chance.” He sits down next to the guitar, fiddles around a bit, and then clears his throat and says, “Anyway, here’s Wonderwall,” after which he plays and sings the 1995 classic. Unless you’re Jimi Hendrix, you strum the guitar with your right hand, which receives motor control from several areas in the left side of the brain.* If you’re wanting to play a hot song that consists of a single chord, you’ll need to push down the strings with your left hand to alter their vibration length and change your chords. On top of that, if you want to change any note, you use your left hand, requiring motor control from a several parts of the left side of your brain.
So already, just by using two hands, Wonderwall Guy is engaging both hemispheres of the brain. While those areas are sending messages to the finger muscles and coordinating with the cerebellum, a structure in the back of the brain in charge of coordinating movement. Assuming both his ears work, he’s hearing himself play guitar with both ears, which requires some structures in the brain stem and several other brain circuits. What’s more, he has this song memorized, so he is using various structures like the hippocampus to remember what he’s recently played in the song and other cortical structures to remember the words he learned as a teenager.
Because music, especially performance, engages so many parts of the brain simultaneously, it may have therapeutic potential. Music therapy is a type of therapy that’s becoming more readily available in hospitals, occupational health clinics, and assisted living centers. It’s a way to help people with various illnesses from damaged brain connectivities, such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and developmental disorders. When former US Congresswoman Gabby Giffords suffered a devastating brain injury in 2011, she was unable to speak and had her severe motor impairments on the right side of her body. She was able to make an incredible recovery in great part thanks to music therapy and its ability to tap into the brain’s rewiring mechanisms.
Interested in bingeing on reading instead of Netflix? Below are some books that I’ve found really interesting as I’ve been learning about music and the brain. Bon appetit!
Daniel Levitin (2007). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Plume/Penguin.
Oliver Sacks (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Vintage.
Elena Mannes (2013). The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song. Bloomsbury USA.