Well, it’s been a while since I’ve written in my Brain Health Series. What better time than during quarantine to read, research, and write more about the most fascinating organ, the brain!
Dr. Medina, and I’m sure other scientists, are looking for some longer-term, real-life studies that will prove conclusive evidence about the ability of music and the brain. However, there have been several studies performed in lab settings that show intriguing results.
I’m no scientist but the results I’ll be highlighting here are quite amazing!
Please note all the studies and results highlighted in my article were taken from Dr. John Medina’s book, Brain Rules.
Additionally, as a person of faith, I can attest that there are biblical stories pertaining to the power of music and worship. I’ll intertwine some of these stories here in this article as well.
Let me whet your appetite with the fact that Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman who survived a gunshot to the head, was able to learn to speak again in part due to singing and music therapy. When Dr. Oliver Sacks was interviewed about Gifford, he said, “nothing activates the brain so extensively as music. It has been possible to create a new language area in the right hemisphere. And that below my mind.”
That gets my heart to beat a little faster!! You?
The Power of Music on the Brain
Dr. Medina begins his chapter on music and the brain with a fabulous story about a 92-year old man with dementia and how he comes alive with music. Rather than trying to retell this story, which Medina did masterfully, I went on YouTube and found a video of the story for y’all.
It’s a beautiful story and well worth the 6 minutes so watch and enjoy and then we’ll talk a bit more about the effects music has on the brain…
Ability to Interpret Emotion
There was an interesting study done with English speaking musicians and nonmusicians. In this study, both groups listened to folks speaking the Tagalog Phillippine language. The participants were asked to pick out the emotions even though they did not understand the language spoken.
Interestingly the trained musicians squashed the nonmusicians in this experiment and were exceptionally good at distinguishing sadness and fear.
Musical training might actually aid in social skills? Holla!
What do the Musician’s Brains Look Like?
Furthermore, there was a study in which college-age students who had been musically trained for 10+ years were given auditory cues. The researchers observed their brains via noninvasive imaging methods.
Firstly, the researchers were able to observe that these musicians had remarkable abilities to decipher subtle changes in sound, pitch, and timing. Secondly, the researchers were able to show that their brains exhibited increased time-domain responses to complex emotional information.
Dr. Medina believes more research is needed to really show if musically training improves these abilities or if the types of people who choose to be musically trained are more likely to possess these abilities. Either way, I say this is very interesting.
Music and Empathy
In yet another study 50 kids between the ages of 8 – 11 were randomly put into one of three groups:
- Took musical classes for an entire academic year (rhythmic improvisation, musical games, melodic repetition, and shared musical experiences)
- Played interactive experience games but with no music
- Attended regular school
Baselines were established before the experiment began and the ultimate goal was to determine how good the kid’s social skills were at the end of the school year. Guess what? The kids who took the music classes showed marked improvement where the other two groups didn’t.
Apparently the kids in the first group were better at deciphering emotional information in their surroundings. They were better at imitating facial expressions. Bryant’s Index of Empathy showed that these kids also had more empathetic responses to pretend situations.
I know what you may be thinking, “dang I wish I learned to play an instrument when I was young!” Don’t worry, you can still benefit. Read on.
Babies and Music
Now let’s consider a study involving infants. Researchers followed an active group of 6-month-old infants and a control group to determine if music-making had similar effects on babies. The active group involved parent-and-child music classes which included singing, banging on instruments, and learning songs. Additionally, the parents in the active group continued practicing with their infants at home.
The control group instead listened to Baby Einstein music while playing with toys at home.
The social competence was measured before and post-experiment via an Infant Behavior Questionnaire which takes into account 14 aspects of temperament.
Well, you probably know what’s coming by my introduction. None the less this s all pretty spectacular!
The active group:
- Smiled more
- Laughed more
- Easily calmed down after experiencing stress
- Improved gestures
This is pretty good stuff, right? So far, all that I’ve read and reported on seems to support the importance of music-making for healthy brain growth and development but what about listening to music??
How Listening to Music Can Improve Mood
I think we all can agree that listening to music can change our mood. How about when you hear your favorite anthem song on the radio, don’t you roll down the windows and sing along at the top of your lungs? If you don’t I bet you want to!
Well here’s a little science for you…
Robert Zatoree, a Canadian researcher, and his colleagues have found that when people listen to their all-time favorite tunes, the body dumps dopamine into a specific area of the brain. Dopamine is a pleasure chemical. Pretty cool, eh?
In another study, researchers studied patients who were about to undergo surgery. Most likely pre-operative patients are secreting cortisol. Cortisol is a chemical that gets secreted in stressful situations. The patients were placed into two groups:
- One which was allowed to listen to classical music
- Another one which was given an antistress pill
Heart rates and respiration were measured and guess who experienced less stress? Bingo, the music group!!
Or let’s take the biblical story of Saul being tormented by an evil spirit and requests that someone plays the harp to soothe him.
“Whenever the evil spirit from God bothered Saul, David would play his harp. Saul would relax and feel better, and the evil spirit would go away.” – 1 Samuel 16:23
More Proof that Making Music is Good for the Brain
Lastly, researchers have found that people who sing in a choir together have oxytocin (the bonding chemical) course through their brains. Dr. Medina says, “an uptick in the hormone is a fairly reliable indicator or feelings of trust, love, and acceptance.
Or let’s consider the biblical story of how Joshua and others were able to march around a city, playing trumpets until the walls of Jericho came down. I think this cute little children cartoon displays the story beautifully.
I can appreciate that scientists want more long-term studies before they declare conclusive evidence. Although, this gal is pretty convinced that MUSIC = BRAIN HEALTH.
So far we’ve seen that musical training can aid in interpreting emotion, improve empathetic and social responses, produces oxytocin, and brings down walls. Additionally, listening to music can increase dopamine, decrease cortisol, and ward off evil spirits.
Yep, Imma keep listening to the music I love and singing and dancing along. And while the only formal music training I received was 4 years of playing flute and piccolo, I believe it gave me an edge up on my social skills. I may have been a late bloomer in many ways, but I’ve certainly always been one who could depict the emotion of a situation.
With that note, I’ll ask you, what is your favorite anthem?