Music and the Mind
By Anjeli Dominique Macaranas
Whether you are a classically trained violinist, a jazz band enthusiast, or an avid Mariah Carey fan, you have most likely experienced the power of music at some point in your life. Though popping in your earbuds and listening to your favorite playlist on repeat may seem effortless, you are actually engaging in a full brain workout. The mechanism of hearing music and interpreting it is a complex process that requires the synergy of various pathways in both your ears and brain.
Music travels into the ear in the form of sound waves which are then collected and funneled through the ear canal into the eardrum. Vibrations in the middle ear send fluid waves up to the cochlea where hair cells release neurotransmitters, activating the auditory nerve. This nerve then sends electrical currents to stimulate the auditory cortex within the temporal lobe of the brain (H Publishing, 2011).
As you continue listening, different regions of the brain begin analyzing the various nuances of the song. Studies have shown that the cerebellum helps process rhythm, while the frontal lobes interpret the emotions behind the music (Jun et al., 2019). A small area in the right temporal lobe senses pitch, chords, and harmony. Ever wonder why you have a certain song stuck in your head? Listening to music also activates the hippocampus and lower parts of the frontal lobe which serve as the brain’s memory centers. Stuck song syndrome (or “earworms”) refers to “cognitive itches” where the brain automatically reverts back to the auditory information stored, resulting in a vicious (and rather annoying) cycle (Euser et al., 2016).
For practicing musicians, the amount of brain stimulation is even greater. Reading sheet music engages the visual cortex while recalling lyrics activates the language centers in the temporal and frontal lobes. Playing a musical instrument also strengthens the connections between the left and right hemispheres because of the rapid coordination needed for interpreting auditory information, somatosensory touch, and motor control (Jun et al., 2019). Research has shown that both playing and listening to music are capable of enhancing the brain’s learning centers by enlarging the auditory and motor cortex.
Studying music’s complex impact on the brain provides a promising pathway for understanding how music therapy can help treat neurological, psychiatric, and emotional disorders. Music therapy is an established health profession that utilizes evidence-based musical interventions to address the physical, social, cognitive, and emotional needs of a patient (American Music Therapy Association). Numerous studies have supported its effectiveness in treating Alzheimer’s disease, Autism Spectrum Disorder, pain management, trauma response, anxiety, and depression. Music therapy incorporates four main interventions: lyric analysis, improvisation, songwriting, and active music listening (Warren, 2016). Lyric analysis allows the patient to process their emotions and thoughts, as they can identify with lyrics that hold similarities with their own experiences. Improvisation encourages individuals to create various themes with their music (i.e. conflict, joy, grief) in order to help them best express their emotions and discuss their feelings in a group setting. Through songwriting and active music listening, patients can shift their mood to a more positive and calm state and take pride in their own creations.
The full extent to which music can be used to aid in individual well-being has yet to be uncovered. Especially during a time of uncertainty and prolonged isolation, music can play a universal role in preserving and enhancing our mental health and maintaining a sense of connection with others. As Robert Browning eloquently states, “Who hears music feels his solitude peopled at once.”
About the Author
Anjeli Dominique Macaranas is a first-year student at Harvard College planning on concentrating in Neuroscience.
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