Music has a powerful effect on the human body and many times it seems like the response is involuntary. You may not even know the song or the lyrics, but immediately you recognize the sound, you find your foot tapping to the beat. It is not something you actually plan to do.

Interestingly, even if the song is not on your playlist or even among your favorite genres, the effect is the same. It actually takes a lot of conscious effort to avoid swinging to the beat especially when you realize that the lyrics are abusive or inappropriate.

This has sparked interest among scientists and lots of researches have been done to find out more about music and the brain. The following insights from a post by Natalie Angier will help you understand a little on how your brain works:

headphones and ipod
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Music in everyday life

Studies have shown that there is evidence of the existence of music way before civilization began and therefore it has been part of human life for a long time now.

Every culture ever studied has been found to make music, and among the oldest artistic objects known are slender flutes carved from mammoth bone some 43,000 years ago — 24,000 years before the cave paintings of Lascaux. Via New York Times

Even today, music seems to be part of all our daily activities in ceremonies, including both formal and informal set-ups, and even in the mundane tasks of life. Even in the business world, music has become an essential component of advertising. Why?

A Part of the Brain

There is a part of the brain that is responsible for detecting and interpreting sounds. It is connected to the auditory nerve in the ears and enables you to distinguish what you hear. This piece of knowledge, however, is actually quite old.

On the other hand, with the interest in discovering why there seems to be a universal response to music, scientists went on a quest as described below:

Yet for years, scientists failed to find any clear evidence of a music-specific domain through conventional brain-scanning technology, and the quest to understand the neural basis of a quintessential human passion foundered. Via New York Times

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Image Courtesy of Public Domain Pictures

A New Discovery

Curiosity continued to push scientists to find out if there is a music-specific part of the brain and continual research prevailed over the years. The following recent discovery brings a new understanding to how the brain works in response to music:

Now researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have devised a radical new approach to brain imaging that reveals what past studies had missed. By mathematically analyzing scans of the auditory cortex and grouping clusters of brain cells with similar activation patterns, the scientists have identified neural pathways that react almost exclusively to the sound of music — any music. It may be Bach, bluegrass, hip-hop, big band, sitar or Julie Andrews. A listener may relish the sampled genre or revile it. No matter. When a musical passage is played, a distinct set of neurons tucked inside a furrow of a listener’s auditory cortex will fire in response. Via New York Times

Isn’t that amazing?! That music, of whatever kind, causes your brain to respond in a specific way, is something to marvel at. The report continues to explain that the response is “music specific” as explained below:

Other sounds, by contrast — a dog barking, a car skidding, a toilet flushing — leave the musical circuits unmoved. Via New York Times

Music and Speech

The brain’s auditory cortex is even more interesting in that it is categorical in its responses. As described above, there are a set of neurons that respond to music alone. Another set responds to speech in a different way, as described below:

woman playing a string instrument
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As proof of principle, the researchers showed that their analytical protocol had detected a second neural pathway in the brain for which scientists already had evidence — this one tuned to the sounds of human speech. Via New York Times

You may probably be wondering what happens when you listen to music with lyrics. This is explained in the following way:

Importantly, the M.I.T. team demonstrated that the speech and music circuits are in different parts of the brain’s sprawling auditory cortex, where all sound signals are interpreted, and that each is largely deaf to the other’s sonic cues, although there is some overlap when it comes to responding to songs with lyrics. Via New York Times

So the next time you hear some music playing, you know what is happening in your brain. Listening to instrumental music has a different effect on you compared to one with lyrics. That is probably why classical instrumental music has been found to offer great health benefits. As research continues, keep yourself updated!

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From Mozart To Mr. Rogers: Literacy, Music And The Brain

music-n-brain-3Welcome to our sand box.

For months now, the NPR Ed Team has been playing with what we like to call “long listen” ideas — worthy stories that we can’t tell in three or four minutes.

Some ideas don’t hold up. The ones that do make it here, including this little adventure to a one-room schoolhouse in the Colombian Andes and this strange tale of two men, separated by an ocean and united by a stolen laptop.

For this week’s long listen, I sat down with my Ed Team co-conspirator, Anya Kamenetz, to talk about one of my favorite subjects: brains. Specifically, how children learn to read and what can be done to help struggling readers. Via NPR