The musical brain

The Mozart effect marked a turning point for the research into the impact of music on the human brain. The claim that listening to classical music could boost a child’s intelligence turned out to be a hoax, but many funds became available to find out what does happen in the brain when engaged in music.

Although music has a very positive influence on the brain, listening to classical music doesn't boost a child's intelligence. (© famveldman - Fotolia.com)

Although music has a very positive influence on the brain, listening to classical music doesn’t boost a child’s intelligence. (© famveldman – Fotolia.com)

When music started, where it comes from and what it was useful for isn’t clear. It likely stems from naturally occurring sounds and rhythms. Animal communication calls contain complex tones, which consist of a fundamental frequency and higher harmonics. Musical utterances of various degrees of complexity and perfection can be found in several species.

According to Darwin, the progenitor of man used his voice in producing true musical cadences like gibbon-apes do nowadays. This happened especially during courtship to express emotions such as passion, jealousy, and triumph and served as a challenge to rivals. Darwin even thought imitation of musical cries by articulate sounds might have given rise to words expressive of various complex emotions.

The evolution of human music and dance may be rooted in coordinated auditory and visual territory advertisements. This behaviour is still exhibited by several social carnivores and primates. Group bonding is useful in attracting allies and mates and in deterring enemy intruders. It has been found that the hormone oxytocin, which is being released during orgasm and which creates a feeling of trust, also becomes available when people sing together.

When people sing together, they experience an increase in the release of the hormone oxytocin. (© Glenda Powers - Fotolia.com)

When people sing together, they experience an increase in the release of the hormone oxytocin. (© Glenda Powers – Fotolia.com)

Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker thinks music is pure pleasure technology. It is useless as far as biological cause and effect are concerned. It could vanish and leave our lifestyle virtually unchanged. To underscore his theory that music is quite different from language, Pinker points out that all normal children spontaneously start to speak and understand complex language whereas many people cannot carry a tune or play an instrument and those who can, need a lot of training and practice.

Verbal skills
Most scientists involved in studying the way the brain processes music do think there is a strong link between music and language. Music training seems to enhance verbal skills. Its multi-sensory processing improves skills also needed for speaking and reading. Language has some musical components, which is most obvious in tone languages like Chinese. Vocal music has some language components. They share common networks in the brain.

Recent research showed singing may help recovery after stroke. Musical intonation therapy in some aphasia patients improved their language ability. In general, music serves as a natural and non-invasive intervention for neurological disorders. It promotes long-term memory, social interaction, and communication. Music also works as a therapy for people who suffer Alzheimer disease.

Musical stimuli activate several brain areas associated with emotion. (© Karen Roach - Fotolia.com)

Musical stimuli activate several brain areas associated with emotion. (© Karen Roach – Fotolia.com)

The brain processes music in a broad fashion, but the right hemisphere appears to be specialised for the processing of melody, whereas the left hemisphere seems to be in charge of rhythmic processing. Musical stimuli activate specific pathways in several brain areas associated with emotional behaviours, including hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex.

Listening to music can have dramatic effects on mental experiences. The tempo of music affects mood, as does the mode. Major mode is associated with positive moods and minor mode with sad moods. This is a learned response. Children younger than seven or eight years do not exhibit it.

Pleasant music is associated with the activation of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which also is relevant to mood. Melodious classical music approximates the rhythm of the resting heart. Listening to this kind of music has been shown to slow a heart beating too fast. The opposite effect has also been reached with more outspoken music styles like heavy metal.

Playing an instrument
Making music is probably one of mankind’s most complex activities. Playing an instrument combines visual, motor, and auditory skills and memory. Musicians translate visually perceived musical symbols into motor commands with simultaneous auditory monitoring of the output. They can memorise long musical phrases, improvise, and identify tones without the use of a reference tone.

Playing an instrument combines visual, motor, and auditory skills and memory. (© Alenavlad - Fotolia.com)

Playing an instrument combines visual, motor, and auditory skills and memory. (© Alenavlad – Fotolia.com)

Scanning of the brains of professional musicians with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques revealed structural adaptations in response to their long-term skill acquisition and the repetitive rehearsal of those skills. Musicians have more grey matter in several brain regions and these effects increase with the intensity of their training.

Some motor areas for instance are enlarged, especially those associated with controlling finger movements used to play a specific instrument. Musicians have a larger cerebellum. The cerebellum is linked to the finger-hand representation and is implicated in cognitive skill learning. It also controls rhythmic activities such as walking and thus may be crucial to timing in music. The corpus callosum, the bridge between the two brain hemispheres, of musicians is enlarged as well. In order to perform bimanual complex motor sequences they need increased and faster inter-hemispheric exchange.

Plasticity

But does this mean music, and especially playing a musical instrument, makes you more intelligent? For the great physicist Albert Einstein, it surely did. He said the reason he was so smart, was because he played the violin since he was a young boy. Whenever he wanted to figure out some problems and equations, he improvised on his violin.

For Albert Einstein, playing the violin helped him bolster his creativity. (© RA Studio - Fotolia.com)

For Albert Einstein, playing the violin helped him bolster his creativity. (© RA Studio – Fotolia.com)

To investigate whether music lessons enhance children’s IQ, scientists monitored groups of children. After a certain period, the children who received musical training showed greater increases in full-scale IQ than children in control groups. The effects are relatively small, but there seem to be positive associations between music lessons and verbal memory, spatial ability, reading ability, selective attention, and mathematics achievement.

The main cause of the brain changes after music lessons turned out to be the skill acquisition and the training. Music lessons require long periods of focused attention, daily practice, reading musical notation, memorisation of extended musical passages, learning about a variety of musical structures, progressive mastery of fine motor skills, and expression of emotions in performance.

Probably it is not specifically the music lessons that give the children an edge. Any other occupation with the same kind of diverse activities would render similar positive results. It is the extreme plasticity of the brains of children up to about seven or eight years old that causes changes brought about by training. Adult brains also have this training-induced potential for plasticity, but to a lesser extent. The results from all those studies into the effects of music on the brain are clear evidence for the plastic nature of the human brain.

Image

Brain playing violin © fabioberti.it – Fotolia.com

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