Music and the Brain

The effects of music on the brains was popularised in 1997 by the book “The Mozart Effect” by Don Campbell. According to Campbell in the book “listening to Mozart (especially the piano concertos), music may temporarily increase one’s IQ and produce many other beneficial effects on mental function. Campbell recommends playing specially selected classical music to infants, in the expectation that it will benefit their mental development”. (Wikipedia, 2017)

One year after Campbell’s book was published, Zell Miller, governor of Georgia included $105,000 every year in his state budget so that every child born in Georgia will receive a tape or CD of classical music. Many parents had also rushed to get Mozart CDs for their children and even babies who are still in the mothers’ wombs. Since then, there has been much debate on Campbell’s theory. According to Gordon Shaw, a physics professor who specialises on the structure of the brain’s cortex, “the music of Mozart may ‘warm up’ the brain,” and also “that complex music facilitates certain complex neuronal patterns involved in high brain activity like math and chess”. (Gaynor 2002)

Campbell’s book drew the attention of the scientific community to the effects of music on the brain and more research went to study this area. With advances in brain mapping technologies, scientists can look with precision at the regions of the brain that are activated when listening or playing music. According to Levitin in his extensive brain research:

“The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions; involving the oldest and newest part of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives. Your brain on music is all about, as Francis Crick repeated as we left the lunchroom, connections”.  (Levitin 2008).

Francis Crick as quoted above is the co-discoverer of the DNA molecular structure. The capacity of brains lie in the amount of neural connections it is able to make. The real power of the brains reside in these connections. According to Anthony Storr, “Exposure to music with a reasonably complicated structure facilitates the establishment of neural networks which improve cerebral function”. (Storr 1992)

In the last 30 years, there have great developments in the research of cortical plasticity which believes that the brain functions can be shifted around within the brain and that the functions that each part of the brain performed is not fixed. Depending on how the brain is stimulated, the functions within the brain can shift their positions internally. For instance in deaf people, the auditory cortex has been reallocated for visual processing and in blind people the visual cortex has been reallocated for auditory processing. This could explain why there is greater sensitivity to sounds in the blind compared to normal people.

The theory of cortical plasticity has been applied to treat patients with speech problems using music therapy. In 1973, Martin Albert and his colleagues developed a form of music therapy called  “melodic intonation therapy” to help patients with speech problems. This therapy is very helpful to patients who have lost their speech ability due to the loss of the left hemisphere of their brain which is responsible mostly for speech functions. But because the right hemisphere is still working well, they could use music to stimulate the right hemisphere which is responsible mostly for musical processing and develop it for linguistic functions. In this form of therapy, sentences were sung to the patients and they have to repeat what they heard. Slowly bit by bit, the musical elements are removed one by one until only the spoken words are left. Albert and his colleagues used this therapy on a “sixty seven-year-old man, aphasic for eighteen months-he could only produce meaningless grunts, and had received three months of speech therapy without effect, started to produce words two days after beginning melodic intonation therapy; in two weeks, he had an effective vocabulary of a hundred words, and at six weeks, he could carry on “short, meaningful conversations.”  (Sacks 2008)  

It has also been discovered that in musicians the corpus callosum or the bridge between the left and right hemisphere is enlarged. Such examples show that the brain is very moldable and depending on how it is stimulated by music, can form the necessary connections and even new functions.

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