The Brain and Music

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Brain, Music, and Emotional Experiences

October 2nd, 2016 · music and the brain

Brain, Music, and Emotional

Dr Alice at church

Have YOU experienced a sudden brain, music, and emotional experience?  This morning I was sitting in church, as I often do on Sunday mornings.  😉  We were transitioning from one section of the service to another and the organist started playing something that just catapulted me back in time!  I tried to analyze what was going on musically, but in the meantime I was flooded with emotion and tears started flowing.  Have you had that happen?  It’s really quite amazing and so, so powerful. The brain, music, and emotional experience should be understood.

My question is always, how can we harness that power and use it for something positive and good.  Musical response is so individual though and heavily related to life experience to date, the music you have heard and the way that it affected you at the time.  In my case, my father was a minister and I spent a lot of time in church as I was growing up.  I always loved music and, although I never particularly cared for the organ (until I heard a really great pipe organ), but I know that even then, occasional a beautiful chord progress and melody would make me very overcome with emotion.  And for no apparent reason?

Using my very best music analysis skills, I know that I like plagal cadences, and 4-3 suspension.  I like a certain type of voicing and spacing within the chord, and modal melodies.  I love Bach, Mozart, Franck, Handel and Pachelbel, but I also love John Rutter, Faure, and many 20th century church music composers.  Looking back, I’d say that his composer was probably French, 20th century, and an organist.  The name was not written in the bulletin because it was just a transitional moment.  Nevertheless, it had a sudden and unexpectedly powerful effect on me!  What happened in my brain?  I’m not sure, but it wasn’t  unpleasant.  I was taken back to the 1950’s in my mind and I saw the interior of many churches where my father was pastor.  I felt some sadness, but also a strong spiritual connection.  I was trying to feel the feelings, while also analyzing the music in real time.  The whole thing may have lasted a minute, but it was just so powerful, I wanted to write about it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts or similar experiences.  Thanks!

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Is Rhythm hard-wired into Humans: Music, and Circadian Rhythms

August 30th, 2016 · how the brain works, music and the brain


Rhythm is Hardwired in Humans

Is rhythm hard-wired into humans?  We all know the irresistible feelings of wanting to clap along to music, or snap your fingers, or get up and dance!  When these urges wash over us, and when we see other people around us start doing the same thing, we feel that it’s OK to give in to these urges!  It greatly enhances the enjoyment of the moment.  It makes us feel alive and uplifted!

But is it actually hard-wired into humans?   This is not an easy question.  Rhythm is an integral part of our bodies and our world.  On the human level, we have the rhythm of heart-beat and breathing. Those are involuntary rhythms that are indications of how healthy we are.  But when we are in a state of dis-ease, they are an early sign that something is wrong.  An erratic heart-beat and rapid, shallow, breathing, lets the physician/healer know that something is awry.  And music can make a difference.  Having a slow, steady beat in an ill person’s room, whether just a rhythmic pulse, or as a part of soft music, can actually be helpful to stabilizing body rhythms, thanks to the process of rhythmic entrainment.

In terms of our world, we have they rhythms and cycles of day and night, they cycles of the four seasons, and the cycles and the phases of the moon, among other things.  Rhythm is everywhere and they’re not always steady and equal.  Even the length of day and night change, according to our proximity to the equator.  But back to the original question:  are humans hard-wired for rhythm?  Well, here is what one very reputable source tells us:

from a book entitled Complications in Anesthesia,  “Humans evolved on a planet with light and dark cycles…as such, we are governed by the Circadian rhythms, hard-wired into our bodies.”

Another source,, reports that “Music is processed in areas throughout the brain, and some of the cognitive processes involved in music, such as memory, emotion, and perception, share neural circuitry with more general brain functioning.  But research has also found that some neural networks seem to be specifically dedicated to the processing of music.  For example, there are auditory circuits used in the perception of music that are not used for speech recognition or for other kinds of sounds.  The circuitry required for processing pitch intervals or complex rhythmic structures is probably unique to music and not used for anything else.”

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The Brain under Regional and General Anesthesia: Music’s Effect

July 30th, 2016 · music and the brain

How does the brain under anesthesia act?  And can music still have a positive effect on the brain?  I talk to lots and lots of people daily and many want to understand how music can have a positive impact on someone having surgery.  You’ve heard me say many times, that the brain is the last unexplored frontier.

First we must understand that when you are under general anesthesia, you are not actually asleep, although the doctor may say that he is “putting you to sleep.”  The reality is that the anesthesiologist is putting you into a coma; one from which you can be fairly easily awakened.  If you were actually sleeping, you would definitely wake up when the cutting started!  So what is going on in the brain when the patient is in this induced coma?

I did some research on this interesting and important question, and here’s what I found:  Dr. Ulrica Nilsson is a PhD, certified registered nurse anesthetist, CRNA.  She is an authority on the use of music during surgery, and here is what she said:

Registrations through EEG have shown that music can decrease the bioelectrical activity in the brain from predominant beta waves to alpha and theta waves, which can have consequences for reduction of anxiety, tension and sleeplessness (Shawn 1999). The mechanism of the pain reducing effect of music has been explained by the gate control theory, which suggests that the transmission of potentially painful impulses can be modulated by a “cellular gating mechanism” found in the spinal cord (Melzack 1973, Whipple & Glynn 1992). Alternatively the beneficial effects may be a result of distraction through cognitive coping strategies by competing stimuli that reduce pain perception (Fernandes & Turk 1989). Music can also act as a distracting agent to refocus the attention from negative stimuli causing the stress, to something that is pleasant; it occupies one’s mind with something familiar, soothing and preferred (Siegele 1974, McCaffery 1992, Mok & Wong 2003), allowing people to escape to “their own world”.

Nilsson et al (2001 and 2003b) have shown that patients which have been exposed to soft relaxing music intraoperatively had significantly lower pain scores on the first day of surgery compared with the control group patients. Intraoperative music can also lead to less postoperative fatigue and that patients became mobile earlier i.e. time to sit after surgery, (Nilsson et al 2001).

Because this research is at least 15 years old (although still valid), I refer you to the study that was done on our Surgical Serenity Solutions headphones and music!  The results indicate that patients under general anesthesia still respond to music very positively and have a 20% less perception of pain.  In the scientific world, that is huge.  To read this study go HERE.

To purchase the Surgical Serenity Headphones or download, go HERE.

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Music, the Brain, and Rapture!

June 20th, 2016 · how the brain works, music and the brain

Music, Brain, Rapture

Music and Rapture

Have you ever experienced pure rapture when listening to a piece of music?  Have you listened to a piece of music that sent tingles up and down your spine and made your breathing and heart rate increase?  Have you experienced such emotion that you truly felt you were in an altered state?  Yes, music can do that!  People have experienced cold chills when listening to and participating in music for thousands of years,  and we inquiring minds have wondered why this happens.

With the advances in neuroscience and brain technology, scans of all kinds, and the general rise in interest in neuroscience, we are beginning to know today what takes place in the brain and body of someone who is listening to a piece of music that gives them cold chills up and down their spine, or induces a sense of intense pleasure so that they wish the piece of music would never stop!

Recently a report on a fascinating study came out in the The Guardian.  The study was conducted at Harvard University by a graduate student at the University of Southern California.  In order to get subjects for this study, the researcher, Matthew Sachs, “put out a call” to music lovers in the area asking for volunteers who loved music but either “did” get chills when listening to certain music or definitely “did not” get chills when listening.  Of the over 200 people that responded, Sachs and colleagues at Harvard and Wesleyan University in Connecticut chose 10 each for “did” and “did not.”  These subjects took online personality tests and then came into the lab with their own playlists.  The music ranged widely from Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Coldplay’s Strawberry Swing toBag Raiders’ Shooting Stars and Blue Devils Drum Corps’s Constantly Risking Absurdity.

According to the authors, “The brains of people who felt the chills had more nerve fibres running from the auditory cortex, needed for basic hearing ability, to two other regions, namely the anterior insular cortex, involved in processing feelings, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which is thought to monitor emotions and assign values to them.”  So, it would seem that we are genetically set up to have these denser fibers in our brains, which lead to the abilility to feel chills or simply to really enjoy the music and perhaps even experience ecstasy or rapture, but without chills.

Would love to hear your comments!

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Music, Brain, and Pain

May 3rd, 2016 · music and the brain

One of the scariest things going on in the world today is all of the addiction to prescription pain-killers.  Nobody wants pain, but pain is a reality for most of us at some point in our lives.  Physicians and scientists around the world are looking for non-addictive ways to treat pain, the the powerful pills that are now out there, are what many people.

Just this past weekend, there was a wonderful story on NBC news about a hospital near New York City that now has a harpist playing in their Emergency Room to calm people down without giving them drugs right away.  Of course we know that music is never going to take the place of drugs for people that are in acute or chronic pain, but it can certainly begin to relax patients in a non-pharmacological way.  The story on NBC was about very compelling and I wanted to share it with you! This hospital fights opiod addiction with music

Educating the public about the power of music in healthcare settings is an ongoing challenge for me, but it is happening.  I think most of us know intuitively that music makes us feel better, but most people just don’t believe that it can actually take the place of medication, or definitely supplement and enhance the power of medicine.

This story on NBC went on to say that the leading cause of accidental death in the US is now overdose of prescription drugs.  Drug manufacturers seems to have limitless advertising budgets and the evening news is always full of advertisements about the newest prescription drugs and the wonders they can perform for you.  I’m sure you’ve also noticed that at the end of the advertisement, the announcer has low-volume warning/disclaimer that he reads so fast that you can barely understand it!

Next time you’re about to take a new prescription med, ask the Dr. if some music/music therapy might help you or decrease the amount of the drug you need!

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