The Brain and Music

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Studying the Brains of Musicians

January 6th, 2016 · how the brain works, music and the brain

I’ve been a musician all of my life.  As I get older and read about what happens to the brain as we age, I can’t help but wonder what mine must look like!  Apparently, the brains of musicians are interesting to neuro-scientists.  Each day, I read new studies about how music affects the brain, and how great it is to give children music lessons, and provide lots of instruments for them to try out and then choose one to master.

So I was very excited, the other day, to see that a study had been done on the brains of musicians, and how they differ from the brain of someone who had done a lifetime of “other” work!  Actually, this particular study was looking at the brains of children under 10, but the results were still fascinating.  So the question remains, do the smarter kids gravitate toward music, or do those who take music lessons begin to be able to use more of their brains.

The music teacher in this article is quoted as saying, “The brain continues to fire on all cylinders” 45 to 90 minutes after practice on a musical instrument, Wenger said.”  He believes that music class, gym class, and art class should be interspersed throughout the day with other classes, because these subjects provide a boost of energy and not just passive sitting and listening!

Just a little more proof that music is really good for humans!  Perhaps the best medicine of all!

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Strokes and Music Therapy

December 15th, 2015 · how the brain works, music and the brain

Do you know someone who has had a stroke?  A stroke is a devastating physical, mental and emotional blow to a person.  Although every stroke is unique and can affect different parts of the part, there are certain commonalities.  But first you must know which side of the brain has been affected and how much tissue has been damages.  Each hemisphere of the brain affects the opposite side of the body.  Paralysis is usually a side-effect, at least initially.

Music therapy is a very powerful tool in the rehabilitation of someone who has had a stroke.  Music has a unique power to reach the brain of a patient who has had a stroke.  Depending on which hemisphere has been affected, the patient can understand words that are sung when they can’t understand spoken words.  Music therapists are given lots of training in working with stroke patients.  For more information, go to Music Therapy and Strokes/

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Why is the bass line so important in music?

December 2nd, 2015 · how the brain works, music and the brain

A fascinating study was reported today in an online publication called  The title of the study is ”

The Neuroscience of Bass: New Study Explains Why Bass Instruments Are Fundamental to Music”  For musicians and music-lovers, we know we love a great bass line.  How many Bach fugues begin with a powerful state of the fugue subject in a powerful bass instrument, like the pipe organ.  The fugue then dances through other registers, instruments and transformations of all kinds.  Then there’s the ostinato bass line, like the famous Pachelbel Canon, where the bass line or specific chord progression, repeats over and over in the bottom-most register of the orchestra or organ, or even piano.  Sometimes called a “ground-bass,”  it creates a sense of grounding in the listener and as it becomes more and more predictable, the listener relaxes into the rhythms, melodies and harmonies, knowing that as the bass remains the same, all the other voices and instruments morph around it.

This new study points out that “Bass instruments don’t only keep time; they also play a key role in a song’s harmonic and melodic structure. In 1880, an academic music textbook informed its readers that “the bass part… is, in fact, the foundation upon which the melody rests and without which there could be no melody.” As true as this was at the time—-when acoustic precursors to electric bass, synthesizers, and sub-bass amplification provided the low end—it’s just as true now. And bass parts often define the root note of a chord, regardless of what other instruments are doing. As a bass player, notes Sting, “you control the harmony,” as well as anchoring the melody. It seems the importance of rhythm players, though overlooked in much popular appreciation of music, cannot be overstated.”

If you find this as interesting as I do, I strongly suggest that you read the entire study, which I’ve linked to in the title above!  Enjoy!

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Music Enters Brain through 8th Cranial Nerve

October 16th, 2015 · how the brain works, music and the brain

The topic of music and the brain is endlessly fascinating to me!  If we could only really understand the power of music to improve not only our health, but our entire lives, the greatest labs on the planet would be working on this around the clock.  Of course, this is not happening around the clock, but it is finally happening a lot more often than it was even fifty years ago.

Neuroscientists and neuromusicologists are investigating all kinds of exciting phenomena in illness, wellness and greatly improved quality of life.  We all know that certain music can make us feel ecstatically happy, devastatingly sad, fantastically energized,  and superbly relaxed!!  And the music that does this will vary from person to person!  That is why those of us in the fields of music medicine or music therapy or music healing or sound healing, know that letting the patient choose their preferred music is so important.

But how does the music enter the brain?  Well, the exact location is the 8th cranial nerve, but there’s so much more fascinating information to learn about this.  Recently, an article appeared that looks at all the benefits of music on stress management and concluded that

The kids listen 15 minutes a day, five days a week.

Alexis Obeldobel, 7, says, “I like the sound of the instruments.”

Her Mom says it works for her three children who are using the program.

“I can tell the behavior, they’re much calmer and more focused when they do listen,” she said.

Damien Maine, 7, also likes to listen. His mom, Jennifer, loves the program.

She says, “He’s actually able to sit down and focus on something and deal with outside noises and not have a problem thinking, listening and writing.”

“The Listening Program” works for adults, too, whether they want to improve executive function or reduce stress.

Dantry, who uses it for the kids she helps at the school, tried it herself.

“I know for me, I’m a high stress person, and it made me a lot more calm, able to deal with things on a daily basis easier than I typically would,” she said.

The Listening program is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and is used across the country and must be through a licensed and trained occupational therapist.

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More about how music affects brain plasticity

September 30th, 2015 · how the brain works, music and the brain

First of all, let’s take a look at the definition of brain plasticity.  According to Wikipedia:

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is an umbrella term that encompasses both synaptic plasticity and non-synaptic plasticity—it refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, and emotions – as well as to changes resulting from bodily injury.[1] The concept of neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes in the course of a lifetime.[2]

Neuroplasticity occurs on a variety of levels, ranging from cellular changes (due to learning) to large-scale changes involved in cortical remapping in response to injury. The role of neuroplasticity is widely recognized[by whom?] in healthy development, learning, memory, and recovery from brain damage. During most of the 20th century, neuroscientists maintained a scientific consensus that brain structure was relatively immutable after a critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by findings revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood.[3]

How can music affect brain plasticity?  As you see above, neuroscientists formerly believed that the brain was static and could not change.  Now we know that that is not true!  The brain can definitely change and music can play a significant role in that.

“Multiple previous posts have described the unique way that music uses much of the brain, with multiple senses, modalities and parts of the brain. Any music training and practice can have wide ranging brain effects, especially playing or singing with others.”  As I’ve said here many times, live music is always better than recorded music, and when YOU are performing the music, even just singing in the shower or beating on a drum, your brain will stay younger and think better!! – See more at:

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