Music and the brain

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By Bob Bailly

Over the holidays, I was looking for a present for my wife and found myself checking out a pre-Christmas sale at a local department store. During my time at the mall I was bombarded with generic Christmas music everywhere I went. Despite my urge to gag at the arrangements, when I was absorbed in the purer business of shopping, I actually caught myself singing along to several of the tunes.

At a cerebral level, listening to the musical pap made me feel like just another cranky holiday shopper, but deep down it was making me happy. Recognizing that I was being manipulated by these businesses in a subtle way got me once again thinking about the impact music has, or can have, on our behaviour. I’ve also been intrigued by my 21-month-old grandson’s fascination with music and rhythm. These things led me to revisit some research I did a couple of years ago on the affects that music can have on education.

Bottom line, music does help wire the brain, and the potential use in our lives is beyond measure.

Music and intellect

Dr. Laurel Trainor, professor of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour at McMaster University in Canada, and director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, has done significant work on the relationship between music and intellect. Her studies show that young infants already have multi-sensory connections between auditory and movement areas of the brain, likely brain circuits that began forming in the uterus, and they prefer consonant chords over dissonant chords, just like adults.

Trainor and her colleagues have also found that brain responses to sound do not reach adult maturation until about 18 years of age, and that the brains of music students mature differently than those of students who do not take music lessons. Her studies have discovered that musically trained children do better on IQ tests and have improved literacy, verbal memory, visuospatial processing and mathematical skills.

She and Dr. Takako Fujiok from Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute led a study using children aged four and six. Some of these children attended a Suzuki music school while others had no music lessons. The research team investigated how auditory responses in children matured over the period of a year by monitoring brain activity using a non-invasive scanning technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG) that measures small magnetic fields inside the head. Because the MEG technique offers the possibility of measuring brain activity almost in real time, these scientists were able to see how auditory responses cause the brain to work as auditory information is passed from the ears to different parts of the brain.

By monitoring the children four times during the year and incorporating a music test and a memory test, the research team discovered that, while all the children’s brains had larger and quicker responses as they matured, the Suzuki children experienced a greater change.

But what was more interesting is that this change was not restricted to musical abilities, such as harmony and rhythm processing. The children who studied music scored better on the general memory tests as well.

Professor Tanner describes these observations this way:

That the children studying music for a year improved in musical listening skills more than children not studying music is perhaps not very surprising. On the other hand, it is very interesting that the children taking music lessons improved more over the year on general memory processing skills that are correlated with non-musical abilities such as literacy, verbal memory, visuospatial processing, mathematics and IQ than did the children not taking the lessons … It suggests that musical training is having an effect on how the brain gets wired for general cognitive functioning related to memory and attention.

Dr. Fujioka elaborated:

Our work explores how musical training affects the way in which the brain develops. It is clear that music is good for children’s cognitive development and that music should be part of the pre-school and primary school curriculum.

This got me to thinking…

If music is so powerful in wiring our brains and can be used to improve intellect, what are some of the other potential implications of musical exposure?

Better health, for one.

The American Music Therapy Association has a staggering amount of research on the use of music in medicine and patient therapies. Among other things, music therapists provide evidence that music can be used to reduce pain, anxiety and depression; positively change mood and emotional states; improve memory in Alzheimer’s patients, improve mobility in Parkinson patients, reduce hospital time, and generally improve patient outcomes. Music therapy is also being used successfully in rehabilitation of persons in correctional and forensic settings.

Professor Suzanne Hanser from the Berklee College of Music describes using a music therapy protocol this way:

(This protocol)…is based on a cognitive behavioral model of therapy, which posits that new thoughts, feelings and body states may be conditioned to replace dysfunctional patterns. Specifically, a relaxed body and pleasant visual images may replace tension and worry when they are conditioned as a response to familiar, calming music. The conditioning process takes place when listening to this music is paired with deep relaxation through repeated practice. Over time, the music alone cues the response…

  • To direct attention away from pain or anxiety, distracting the listener with comforting music
  • To provide a musical stimulus for rhythmic breathing
  • To offer a rhythmic structure for systematic release of body tension
  • To cue positive visual imagery
  • To condition a deep relaxation response
  • To change mood
  • To focus on positive thoughts and feeling to celebrate life

Music at work

Can you use music to improve your performance? Ask Gabrielle Giffords, who has used music therapy to learn to talk again.

Or ask Thorin Klosowski what he believes are positive benefits of music. In a blog authored by him appearing in, music, among other things, can be used to improve memory, not so much for numbers of lists, but relevant events that are linked to music. “If you’re having trouble remembering something, you might have better luck if you play the same music you were listening to when you first made the thought,” he wrote.

Klosowski also believes music has a positive effect on exercising. He recommends “the best music to listen to is between 120-140 beats per minute, which also happens to be the standard tempo for upbeat dance music, meaning you’ll be increasing your immune system and helping you exercise at the same time.”

Music can also improve athletic performance, from humming a tune to reduce anxiety, to improving basketball players’ free throw percentages. He cites research on those athletes and claims that listening to upbeat music “caused the basketball players to lose focus and execute their free throws with minimal involvement from the prefrontal cortex.” Stop thinking and shoot the ball – what a concept.

But what about those Christmas tunes?

The use of music as a marketing tool could be a book unto itself. But what I find interesting is that at its core music is social, and from our tribal beginnings music has brought people together for a common experience. This is why strong brands like Coke, Pepsi, and top-selling beer companies have used music to associate with their products.

Music drives loyalty. I was fortunate enough to see Paul McCartney perform in Edmonton recently, and realize that music fans are among the most passionate and loyal people in the world. People will travel to Graceland, book “Blue’s Cruises” to the Bahama’s and pay way too much to hear their legends perform, making music loyalty programs a no-brainer in my mind.

But a cautionary note: Where once music was an aural medium – simple yet powerful through deep, complex connections within our brains – today music has become both content and media, analog and digital. Music is now data.

Russell Wallach notes in that “because of technology available online, through mobile devices and apps, marketers have unprecedented insight into the data and preferences of music fans … With the proliferation of data available today, we can not only track trending songs and artists across retail, social, broadcast, and file-sharing channels … we can match ticket sales data to demographic and household information, empowering brands to target offers, benefits, and rewards based on preference.”

Turns out I didn’t have a chance shopping for that gift for my wife. They had me when Bing started to sing “White Christmas.”

Image: U.S. Department of Homeland Security

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