The Brain and Music

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The Brain and “Falling in Love Music”

February 13th, 2014 · how the brain works, music and the brain

I don’t know whether anyone has ever done a scientific study that looks in the brain of someone who is “falling in love” and listening to love songs, but I think many of us can imagine what it might look like!  Many studies have been done that look at the brain of people who are experiencing extreme pleasure, whether it’s eating chocolate, having a sexual experience, or listening to/making favorite music!

When we’re in a state of infatuation, the world is rosy!  Life is good and music definitely serves to enhance that feeling!  What happens in the brain?  Probably something like this:

The music in this video is from the current generation of young people, but in my day, listening to Elvis sing “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” or the music from “South Pacific” or “Camelot” I’m sure my brain was probably doing the same thing!  What is your brain doing this Valentine’s Day?

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Music and Brain Injury: Proof is here again!

January 16th, 2014 · how the brain works, music and the brain

Brain injuries have always been with us.  Every year, thousands of brain injuries occur in the U.S. alone, but now scientists are discovering how powerful music can be in restoring memories for the survivors of brain injury.  Today, another study was published on some exciting findings!

In the first study of its kind, two researchers have used popular music to help severely brain-injured patients recall personal memories. Amee Baird and Séverine Samson outline the results and conclusions of their pioneering research in the recent issue of the journal Neuropsychological Rehabilitation.

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Although their study covered a small number of cases, it’s the very first to examine ’music-evoked autobiographical memories’ (MEAMs) in patients with acquired brain injuries (ABIs), rather than those who are healthy or suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease.

In their study, Baird and Samson played extracts from ‘Billboard Hot 100′ number-one songs in random order to five patients. The songs, taken from the whole of the patient’s lifespan from age five, were also played to five control subjects with no brain injury. All were asked to record how familiar they were with a given song, whether they liked it, and what memories it invoked.

Doctors Baird and Samson found that the frequency of recorded MEAMs was similar for patients (38%-71%) and controls (48%-71%). Only one of the four ABI patients recorded no MEAMs. In fact, the highest number of MEAMs in the whole group was recorded by one of the ABI patients. In all those studied, the majority of MEAMs were of a person, people or a life period and were typically positive. Songs that evoked a memory were noted as more familiar and more liked than those that did not.

As a potential tool for helping patients regain their memories, Baird and Samson conclude that: “Music was more efficient at evoking autobiographical memories than verbal prompts of the Autobiographical Memory Interview (AMI) across each life period, with a higher percentage of MEAMs for each life period compared with AMI scores.”

“The findings suggest that music is an effective stimulus for eliciting autobiographical memories and may be beneficial in the rehabilitation of autobiographical amnesia, but only in patients without a fundamental deficit in autobiographical recall memory and intact pitch perception.”

The authors hope that their ground-breaking work will encourage others to carry out further studies on MEAMs in larger ABI populations. They also call for further studies of both healthy people and those with other
neurological conditions to learn more about the clear relationship between
memory, music and emotion; they hope that one day we might truly “understand the
mechanisms underlying the unique memory enhancing effect of music.”

Journal Reference:

  1. A. Baird, S. Samson. Music evoked autobiographical memory after severe acquired brain injury: Preliminary findings from a case series. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, 2013; : 1 DOI: 10.1080/09602011.2013.858642

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Have you ever had a Tune stuck in your brain?

December 3rd, 2013 · how the brain works, music and the brain

Almost everybody that I talk to about music and the brain tells me that at some point in their life they have had a serious problem with a tune stuck in their brain.  You know what I’m talking about?  You hear an old favorite on the radio or something jogs your memory and suddenly you start playing this song over and over and over in your brain.  The problem is, even after you want it to stop, it won’t stop!  Now that is maddening!

Recently, I got a beautiful hymn from my childhood, stuck in my brain.  I grew up in the United Methodist Church in the Deep South, and loved this hymn.  The older I get, the more precious these hymns from my childhood become.  Here is a wonderful YouTube recording of this beautiful hymn.  Hopefully, it won’t turn into an “earworm” for you!


If you want to learn more about earworms, what they are, and how some scientists propose to get rid of them see

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Music Therapy with the Parkinson’s Patient

October 30th, 2013 · music and the brain

Do you know someone who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease?  Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that has no cure, but has quite a few effective treatments, including medication, but also exercise and music therapy.  We are very lucky here in Louisville, KY to have a music therapy group just for Parkinson’s patient at the Norton Neuroscience Institute. 

Watch carefully as Music Therapist Kerry Willis, a former student of mine and a former research assistant of mine, leads a group of men in the Parkinson’s Music Therapy group.


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Why does music affect emotions so powerfully?

September 26th, 2013 · how the brain works, music and the brain

Have you ever had the experiencing of bursting into tears when you heard a piece of music that was so achingly beautiful that you couldn’t hold back tears?  I have.  Have you ever heard music that simply made you smile/grin from ear to ear because it was so clever or even funny?  I have.  Have you ever heard music that totally gave you the “creeps?”  I have.

Music can inspire and elicit hundreds of shades of emotion.  It can be familiar or it can be something you’ve never heard before.  I remember that first time I heard the theme music from “Schindler’s List.”  It was one of these hauntingly tragic melodies, played on the violin that just made me want to sob immediately.  Listen to a little of it:

This is the power of music and I believe that it is a power we can harness, with intention and healing, to help people process painful feelings, and also to enjoy their good feelings all the more. It can also be used, of course, to help people deal with physical pain, neurological disorders, surgery and so much more.

An interesting study from Northwestern University suggests that people with musical training are especially fine-tuned to the emotions of others.  Here is an excerpt from their findings:

March 3, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. — Looking for a mate who in everyday conversation can pick up even your most subtle emotional cues? Find a musician, Northwestern University researchers suggest.

In a study in the latest issue of European Journal of Neuroscience, an interdisciplinary Northwestern research team for the first time provides biological evidence that musical training enhances an individual’s ability to recognize emotion in sound.

“Quickly and accurately identifying emotion in sound is a skill that translates across all arenas, whether in the predator-infested jungle or in the classroom, boardroom or bedroom,” says Dana Strait, primary author of the study.

A doctoral student in the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music, Strait does research in the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory directed by neuroscientist Nina Kraus. The laboratory has done pioneering work on the neurobiology underlying speech and music perception and learning-associated brain plasticity.

Kraus, Northwestern’s Hugh Knowles Professor of Communication Sciences and Neurobiology; Richard Ashley, associate professor of music cognition; and Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory manager Erika Skoe co-authored the study titled “Musical Experience and Neural Efficiency: Effects of Training on Subcortical Processing of Vocal Expressions in Emotion.”

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, found that the more years of musical experience musicians possessed and the earlier the age they began their music studies also increased their nervous systems’ abilities to process emotion in sound.

“Scientists already know that emotion is carried less by the linguistic meaning of a word than by the way in which the sound is communicated,” says Strait. A child’s cry of “Mommy!” — or even his or her wordless utterance — can mean very different things depending on the acoustic properties of the sound.

The Northwestern researchers measured brainstem processing of three acoustic correlates (pitch, timing and timbre) in musicians and non-musicians to a scientifically validated emotion sound. The musicians, who learn to use all their senses to practice and perform a musical piece, were found to have “finely tuned” auditory systems.

This fine-tuning appears to lend broad perceptual advantages to musicians. “Previous research has indicated that musicians demonstrate greater sensitivity to the nuances of emotion in speech,” says Ashley, who explores the link between emotion perception and musical experience. One of his recent studies indicated that musicians might even be able to sense emotion in sounds after hearing them for only 50 milliseconds.

The 30 right-handed men and women with and without music training in the European Journal of Neuroscience study were between the ages of 19 and 35. Subjects with music training were grouped using two criteria — years of musical experience and onset age of training (before or after age 7).

Study participants were asked to watch a subtitled nature film to keep them entertained while they were hearing, through earphones, a 250-millisecond fragment of a distressed baby’s cry. Sensitivity to the sound, and in particular to the more complicated part of the sound that contributes most to its emotional content, was measured through scalp electrodes.

The results were not exactly what the researchers expected. They found that musicians’ brainstems lock onto the complex part of the sound known to carry more emotional elements but de-emphasize the simpler (less emotion conveying) part of the sound. This was not the case in non-musicians.

In essence, musicians more economically and more quickly focus their neural resources on the important — in this case emotional — aspect of sound. “That their brains respond more quickly and accurately than the brains of non-musicians is something we’d expect to translate into the perception of emotion in other settings,” Strait says.

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