Music has a special place in the world of brain science. If you take away human actions required for survival (breathing, eating, sleeping), listening to music may be the most universal human activity on the planet. Every culture in the world has it, and nearly everyone enjoys listening to some form of music.
There is a new and interesting branch of Neuroscience emerging called Neuroesthetics, which focuses on understanding the neurological mechanisms behind music, among other subjective sensory experiences such as art, gourmet food and sweet smelling perfumes. In a study by Dr. Levitin, a former rock music producer turned neuropsychologist, 13 subjects were analyzed under an MRI while listening to classical music. First, the music triggered various areas of the forebrain, as the sound was analyzed, broken down into rhythm, tone, structure, etc. Then, more importantly, the brain’s pleasure centers were activated, releasing dopamine to give a sense of pleasure and reward!
It is because music results in the release of pleasurable chemicals, Levitin supposes, that memories of music become so sharp. Ask anyone to hum one of their favorite songs and it is likely they will remember nearly every note and rhythm change. Considering how complex music actually is, this is quite a feat!
Pleasure centers being activated also helps explain the universal appeal of music, and the profound impact it can have on mood. What is particularly interesting is that all this seems hard wired into us. Not our musical preference, obviously – that is cultural – but the fact that everyone responds to some form of music is highly unique. Why are we built to love music? This is yet to be determined.
Music and your personality
As John Cusack said in the music-centered romantic comedy High Fidelity:
“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like”.
Perhaps because music is so universal, it is also one of the most popular topics of conversation, particularly with people who are just getting to know one another.
In a study by Rentfrow and Gosling, called “The Role of Music Preferences in Interpersonal Perception”, subjects were asked to get to know one another over a 6 week period. Their topics of conversation were noted. By far, music was the most prevalent, with 58% of participants discussing music.
Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, there is something intimately revealing about a person’s musical tastes. Your personal top 10 list may reveal more about you than talking at length about hundreds of other topics. The study tried to codify this by having all the participants take a standardized personality test.
Here are some general correlations mentioned:
- Likes vocals: Extraverted
- Likes country music: Emotionally stable
- Likes jazz music: Intellectual
Personally, I enjoy vocals but tend to focus on the music itself as the base for my musical preference. I’m fairly introverted, so I suppose for me that fits. However, while I respect the enormous technical mastery it takes to play jazz, it has never struck an emotional chord with me. Am I unintellectual? These results are kind of confusing to me, but then it doesn’t seem like many other genres were analyzed - or at least they weren’t mentioned. I would love to see more studies go into this.
I have never really asked myself why I prefer a certain type of music. In many ways it is cultural for me, growing up in a musical family, with my father in a celtic/folk band that would play every Sunday. In another way, it is technical – because I can play music, I appreciate music that is hard to play. But, as the jazz thing clearly shows, that is probably not what results in a release of those ever-important pleasure chemicals.
So - what kind of music do you like? And – what does it say about you?
Music and your intelligence
For at least a decade, millions of parents have been playing classical music to their infant children in hopes of raising their intelligence in some way. We have all heard of the Mozart effect. Like an urban legend, nearly everyone has heard from a friend or a friend of a friend that Mozart will make you smarter, that the part of the brain that analyzes music is also involved in math and a million other activities.
So far, there actually hasn’t been much analysis on what effect early musical listening has on intelligence. However, there is growing evidence that learning to play music has many beneficial effects. Increased spatial intelligence for one, but also other benefits. Nina Kraus and Patrick Wong, both neuroscientists at Northwestern University, recently studied 20 participants, some with at least 6 years of musical training that started before the age of 12, and the others with only 3 years of training or less. They were asked to watch a movie of their choice while also listening to a language that was unfamiliar to them: Mandarin. They found that musical training correlated with the ability to decipher the tones used in Mandarin (which is a tonal language). They also found that musical training helped participants zero in on these sounds despite the ongoing movie. This analysis has lead the researchers to conclude that musical training may enhance a variety of auditory brain activities – in other words, musical training is not just training you to play music.
The good news is that many people fall into this category. The participants studied were not musical virtuosos – just every day people with early musical experience.
Unfortunately, I haven’t read anything yet to indicate that music helps with math. Considering how much I struggled with math in school, while simultaneously playing music daily since I was 8, I’m not sure there is much correlation to be found there.
Music and the Ancient Brain
Another interesting finding by Kraus and Wong, was that the differences between neural responses of participants was largely in the brain stem, one of the oldest parts of our brain, and a part that is normally only involved in controlling heartbeat, breathing, and other critical body functions. Not a place you would expect to find a response to music!
The research by Dr. Levitin (mentioned at the beginning) found musical responses in the Cerebellum, an area associated mostly with body movement, and also a comparatively ancient part of the brain. Levitin said that as the brain internalizes the music, the Cerebellum starts reacting every time the song deviates from its normal melody or tempo.
It is amazing that these ancient brain structures are so involved with the music, and could be yet another clue into why we react so strongly to it. Knowing this could explain why I often get a very physical reaction to music (tingling of the skin, for example).
Music and a thousand questions
Still, these studies have raised more questions than answers for me. How is our music preference affected by our personality? Why does the brain devote so much energy to experiencing music? What is lost in the brain if you are deaf, brain damaged, or musically deprived?