Music and the Brain

Music and the Brain

“What an odd thing it is to see an entire species—billions of people—playing with listening to meaningless tonal patterns, occupied and preoccupied for much of their time by what they call ‘music.’” This, at least, was one of the things about human beings that puzzled the highly cerebral alien beings, the Overlords, in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End. Curiosity brings them down to the Earth’s surface to attend a concert; they listen politely and patiently, and at the end, congratulate the composer on his ‘great ingenuity’—while still finding the entire business unintelligible.

They cannot think what goes on in human beings when they make or listen to music, because nothing goes on within them. They, themselves, as a species, lack music. We, on the other hand, are not lacking. The stirring or animating power of music entails emotional no less than motor arousal. We turn to music; we need it, because of its ability to move us, to induce feelings and moods, states of mind. Therapeutically, this power can be very striking in people with autism or frontal lobe syndromes, who may otherwise have little access to strong emotional states. And the evocative power of music can also be of immense value in people with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, who may have become unable to understand or respond to language, but can still be profoundly moved—and often regain their cognitive focus, at least for a while—when exposed to music, especially familiar music that may evoke for them memories of earlier events, encounters or states of mind that cannot be called up in any other way. Music may bring them back briefly to a time when the world was much richer for them.

Much has been written and researched with regards to the potential of music to help heal patients with severe brain injury. In one study reviewed, researchers studied patients who were about to undergo surgery. Participants were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs. Scientists tracked patient’s ratings of their own anxiety, as well as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The results: The patients who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than people who took drugs. Levitin cautioned that this is only one study, and more research needs to be done to confirm the results, but it points toward a powerful medicinal use for music. “The promise here is that music is arguably less expensive than drugs, and it’s easier on the body and it doesn’t have side effects,” Levitin said. Levitin and colleagues also highlighted evidence that music is associated with immunoglobin A, an antibody linked to immunity, as well as higher counts of cells that fight germs and bacteria.

My intention is to study the encoding of music in the brain with regards to emotion, attention, as well as spatial recognition of sound in the environment. In my study I am investigating the listeners response and the affect created by a specifically created ambience intended to invoke a positive response. Music is a fundamentally human phenomenon and has been found to play a very important role in development. Further, I am interested in the implementation of music into therapy, thus the understanding of how things such as intent and aesthetics combine to create an impact on the listener is not only of curiosity but also something of real importance and value. I have found numerous studies that take certain aspects of musical affect on the psyche, and I intend to take these and learn from them in order to better construct my own study. In his book Musicophilia, distinguished psychologist Oliver Sacks notes repeatedly music’s ability My question of research is just how does music affect the mood in scenarios where the subject could hypothetically sense a gambit of emotions, from boredom to irritation, were the music not there.

For example, a study conducted by Dr. Suvi Saarikallio and Jaakko Erkkilä of Finland set out to explore and clarify the role of music in adolescent mood regulation. “Affective experiences are shown to be central reasons for music consumption and musical activities (DeNora, 1999; Laiho, 2004; North et al., 2000; Roe, 1985; Sloboda and O’Neill, 2001; Wells and Hakanen, 1991; Zillmann and Gan, 1997). However, the study of emotion has not been central to music psychology.” The intent is outlined as such; “the purpose of this present study is to rise to the challenge of theory development and conceptual understanding of the emotional functions of music.” My methods will involve participants who will be asked to complete a simple attention based task, in this case a coloring page. The ten participants will be asked to provide a rating of attentiveness and emotion, and the subject will then be exposed to a particular mood via music. Afterwards the subject will be debriefed and asked to again provide a rating of attentiveness and emotional state.

Musical activities seemed to regulate at least three elements of subjective experiences: valence, intensity and clarity. The scenarios that I devised fall under two distinct categories. The first category I crafted with the intent to provide an atmosphere of tranquility, calm. For the music of the first category, I set out to instill a sense of calm in the listener. I formed a playlist capturing Brian Eno’s ambient work, chosen from a span of decades with transitions in mind. Eno, himself an extremely emotionally intelligent individual, has the unique ability to ‘paint with sound’, he creates a highly visual experience for the listener. I myself have experienced this profoundly. For the second category I set out to provoke a sense of cognitive dissonance, a state of relative unease in which the listener is forced to reckon with the music and come to terms with it. For this affect I played Sketches of Spain, a record composed by Gil Evans and performed by Miles Davis and a group of twenty-five highly trained musicians. The music is not outright imposing, nor is the volume excessive, but the sound itself is not ‘easy’ by any means, creating a contrast to Eno’s much softer music. Discord and tension are created brilliantly in the album through instruments such as the bass clarinet, which has a menacing sound, as well as the tension creating strings and Miles’ moody, poetic, song-like style on the trumpet.

Music had a clear, profound, noticeable impact on valence mainly by strengthening positive feelings and helping the participant to move away from negative feelings. In nearly every instance I discovered that the participant was making strides towards a relaxed state of mind in which he or she felt totally in the moment and at ease. One interesting distinction was that participants exposed to the first category (Eno) reported a higher initial sense of calm compared to the second, while half of the participants reported sleepiness/sluggishness, something that was only seen once in the other category. Sensations of focus soared towards the second half of the second category experience. Music also regulated the intensity of the affect, the experience of how strongly and intensely the mood was felt. Music typically increased the intensity. Of the ten subjects who participated in my study all of them reported an increase in overall well-being. The greatest variance came where I anticipated it would.

The participants often wanted to listen to mood-congruent music and to become immersed with their feelings and sensations created by music, many participants reported feeling relieved and less worried, as though some previously unseen burden had been lifted. Take this excerpt from the study by Dr. Suvi Saarikallio and Jaakko Erkkilä. “Music was a way of expressing and releasing emotions. The adolescents reflected that their emotions to music somehow represented their inner state. Listening to heavy metal or other aggressive music at a high volume seemed well suited to venting anger. Betty said that in solitude she might accompany listening with shouting. Emotions could also be released through playing. Drumming, for example, was considered a releasing activity for discharging emotional pressure.” This is yet another example of the cathartic power of selected music. Music gave form to negative emotions, helped the adolescents to release them and made them feel better.

Going forward, I feel strongly that music should be implemented in various stages of therapy, perhaps combined with meditative and or creative tasks, such as coloring, or writing, or meditation. The mechanisms in the brain responsible for emotion are effected by music to the extent that the affect created by a specific ambience is repeatable and it is possible to implement them in a number of situations with respect to things like time and culture, sensitivity to the situation and the individual, but it is apparent that there is a strong universal component to good music. It is clear that music plays a fundamental role in development and emotional regulation, and that executed thoughtfully musical affect can provide a cathartic experience for the listener. I think further research is necessary and would be highly beneficial. I believe given the opportunity I could create many more “sound environments” designed to induce a positive state of mind. “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” – Aldous Huxley


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