Music and the brain

The ability of music to influence how we feel has been recognised for centuries but it is only recently that science, with the latest technologies available to it, has been able to establish the physical connections and interactions between music and the brain.

Music can be broken down into a range of components but when relating to the brain it has two main aspects which are a language part from its tone and a mathematical part from its rhythm. Although music reaches the brain in a simple process through our ears, research has shown that listening to music and learning to play music affects many other parts of the brain.

Music’s impact on learning

Research undertaken in 1993 by Rauscher and Shaw in California, generally known as ‘The Mozart Effect’ and followed up by additional studies from the same team found that listening to ten minutes of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K488 increased spatial IQ results in students when measured against students who were given relaxation instructions or those who received no input at all.

This research showed a definitive link between music and spatial intelligence. Spatial intelligence is the important ability to perceive the visual world accurately which is recognised as a vital element in higher brain functions needed for areas such as scientific research.

Later research from the same team also highlighted the results of a study of nineteen pre-school children who were given almost a year of music lessons and were measured against a similar group of children who didn’t receive any music lessons. The study showed that the group who received the music lessons showed higher spatial reasoning performance than the other group.

Music’s effect on the development of the brain

Recent studies on music and the brain have shown that widely held beliefs that there is insignificant growth of brain cells after the age of thirty may well be wrong. It would seem that music has the potential to influence the brains development well into later life.

Music can affect the physical aspects of the brain and research is now demonstrating that people who interact with music can experience enduring changes within their brain beyond normal maturation parameters. It has now been shown, for example that people who regularly play a musical instrument are less likely to develop the serious aging condition dementia.

Music’s power of rehabilitation

The effect of continually improving brain imaging techniques has enabled doctors to gain greater insights into the brains ability to change and repair itself and the networks and pathways within the brain that music activates. Studies continue to demonstrate that music and motor control (the control of body movement) share the same circuits.

This has led to the development of techniques and therapies where music is used successfully to improve movement in stroke patients and sufferers of Parkinson’s disease. Music therapy is now also being used successfully on people with cognitive problems or language difficulties.