Music, the universal language of mood, emotion and desire, orchestrates a wide variety of neural systems to cast its evocative spell. Researchers have discovered evidence that music stimulates regions of the brain responsible for memory, language and motor control. They have located specific areas of mental activity linked to the emotional responses elicited by music. This knowledge is now being applied.
The improvement of cognition, memory and sense of well-being, and the reduction of pain and tension have been documented in several studies of music therapy. These studies included individual and group sessions with an aging population that included independent and dependent people, some with dementia and some not. In a study from the University of Luxembourg, researchers concluded that music stimulates the emotional memory, causing the emergence of old memories and a renewed sense of self.
Music could replicate the effects of hormone replacement therapy in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, according to research published in Medical Hypotheses. Their study showed music to be useful in therapy for neuropsychiatric disorders resulting from both functional and organic origins. However, the mechanisms of the action of music on the brain have remained largely unknown despite an increase in scientific studies on the topic.
The results of past studies have clarified that music influences and affects cranial nerves in humans from fetus to adult. To explain how it works at the cellular level, researchers proposed that the neurogenesis, regeneration and repair of the cerebral nerves is the result of adjustment through the secretion of steroid hormones, ultimately leading to cerebral plasticity.
Music affects levels of such steroids as cortisone, testosterone and estrogen, and it is believed that music also affects the receptor genes related to these substances. Unlike supplementing the brain with hormone substitution drugs which have devastating side effects, music is noninvasive, and its existence is universal and mundane. If music can be used in medical care, the application of such a safe and inexpensive therapeutic option is limitless.
It has also been shown that music is able to improve the mood state of people with psychiatric disorders, ameliorate the cognitive deficits in those with dementia, and increase motor functioning in Parkinson patients, as documented in Behavioural Pharmacology. Researchers investigated the effect of music on brain neurotrophin production and behavior. They exposed young adult mice to music with a slow rhythm for 21 consecutive days. At the end of the treatment period, the mice were tested for passive avoidance learning. The music-exposed mice showed increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor in the hippocampus. Music exposure also significantly enhanced learning performance as measured by the passive avoidance test. The researchers concluded that music exposure is helpful in several central nervous system pathologies.
Music influences the neuronal development in children
The famed opera singer Luciano Pavarotti said, “If children are not introduced to music at an early age, I believe something fundamental is actually being taken from them.” Music affects mood, concentration, creativity, and influences the ability to learn.
Neuronal connections in the brain of the infant and young child are formed through experiences and strengthened through repetitions until predictable pathways of processing are established. Once these pathways are formed, it is as though they are hardwired and cannot be changed without much effort. Music is essential to the developing brain as it helps to create and strengthen more neural connections that allow for auditory processing. The act of processing music stimuli elaborates the neural connections in the brain, influencing processing of auditory stimuli over the lifetime.
The biology of music
“Undeniably, there is a biology of music,” says Harvard University Medical School neurobiologist Mark Jude Tramo. He sees it as beyond question that there is specialization within the brain for the processing of music. Music is a biological part of life as surely as it is an aesthetic part.
Studies as far back as 1990 found that the brain responds to harmony. Using a PET scanner to monitor changes in neural activity, neuroscientists at McGill University discovered that the part of the brain activated by music is dependent on whether or not it is pleasant.
The brain grows in response to musical training in the way a muscle responds to exercise. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston discovered that male musicians have larger brains than men who have not had extensive musical training. Their cerebellums, the part of the brain containing 70 percent of the total brain’s neurons, was 5 percent larger in expert male musicians.
Music has the power to affect neural activity no matter where researchers looked in the brain, from primitive regions found in animals to more recently evolved areas thought to be strictly human, such as the frontal lobes. Harmony, melody and rhythm invoke distinct patterns of brain activity.
This new area of research is helping those involved in cognitive rehabilitation. Music is now used with patients who have had a stroke, or those with schizophrenia, Huntington’s. Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injury among others. Our instinctual response to music suggests that in all of us, there is a positive psychological and physiological outcome.