The Brain and Music

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Eighth Cranial Nerve: Where music enters the brain

October 1st, 2017 · 8th Cranial Nerve, Brain and Ear

The eighth cranial nerve is where music enters the brain.  It is the pathway into the brain!   This has been known for a long, long time; but it wasn’t always accepted that the brain was even the seat of intelligence.  That honor was reserved for the heart!

In ancient Egypt, the brain was removed with a hook before mummification, but the heart was left intact.  Apparently, the Egyptians believed that the brain was simply a form of stuffing.  Even today there are remnants of that still exist, as when we say that we’ve learned a piece of music “by heart.”

The evolution of our understanding of anatomy is ongoing, even the anatomy of the brain, but we do know that music enters the brain through the 8th cranial nerve.

Another interesting theory is that rather than the ear being differentiated skin, that the entire body, covered in nerve-filled skin, is actually a giant ear!!  This theory was put forth by Dr. Alfred Tomatis, with whom I studied in 1991.  Dr. Tomatis was a brilliant man and was endlessly fascinated by the connection of the ear, the brain, and the voice.  Dr. Tomatis believed that we could use our own voices to change the brain, and our mood and energy levels.  Yes, his work was controversial, but for those people whose lives he changed, he was a brilliant scientist and physician.  Dr. Tomatis believed that even if a person is completely deaf, they can still feel vibration through their skin and can enjoy music and other sounds through bone conduction and feeling the vibration through the skin of their entire bodies.

The famous Scottish percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, is a fabulous performer and travels around the globe playing with orchestras and having composers write music just for her.   See a video of Evenlyn Glennie

You may notice that when Evelyn Glennie comes onstage, she is completely barefooted.  That is so that she can “hear” through the skin on her whole body, including that stong vibrations that come through the soles of her feet!

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The Brain of a Musical Prodigy

August 18th, 2017 · Brain of the Prodigy, music and the brain

Have you ever wondered about the Brain of a musical prodigy?  I know that I have!  Prodigies of all kinds can be born to people who have no apparent similar talent or ability, but usually they recognize that their child can do some amazing things from a very young age.   I was not a prodigy.  I did love music from an early age, and went to the piano by age 3, trying to pick out tunes that I knew.  But now that I’ve read about true musical prodigies, I know that I was a curious, music-loving child, but not a prodigy.

So what exactly happens in the brain of a musical prodigy that makes them able to play instruments really, really well?  According to Psychology Today,

“At age 6, Mozart performed at the court of the Prince-elect Maximilian II of Bavaria. At age 8, Joy Foster represented Jamaica in table tennis at the Caribbean championships in Trinidad. What do the brains of these two child prodigies have in common? Not as much as you might think: a study published this week in the journal Intelligence shows that one size brain does not fit all prodigies—the brains of math prodigies are different than those of art prodigies are different than those of music prodigies. But for every prodigy, there’s a profile: distinct brain abilities help to make astounding performance possible.”

I find this really interesting.  So, different brain configurations produce different kinds of unusual abilities!

Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston College who has studied prodigies, tells NPR’s David Greene.

“People are fascinated by these children because they don’t understand where it came from. You will see parents who say, ‘I wasn’t like this; my husband wasn’t like this.’ It seems to sometimes just come out of the blue,” Winner says.

“But I believe that anything that shows up so early, without training, has got to be either a genetic or some other biological basis,” Winner says. “If a child suddenly at age 3 goes to the piano and picks out a tune and does it beautifully, that has to be because that child has a different brain.”

Children who are extremely gifted tend to be socially different, too, Winner says. “They feel like they can’t find other kids like themselves, so they feel kind of weird, maybe even like a freak, and feel like [they] don’t have anybody to connect with.”

Gifted children are more likely to be introverted, Winner says, and spend more time alone. “On the other hand, they also long to connect with other kids, and they can’t find other kids like themselves.”


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Listening to favorite music triggers similar brain activity, no matter the genre

July 3rd, 2017 · how the brain works, music and the brain

Listening to favorite music triggers similar brain activity, whether it is jazz, classical, New Age, or even hip-hop!  That’s not really so surprising, is it?  It’s all about pleasure, I think, and we all like different types of music, different types of food, different types of climates, even different types of personalities.  But this study is observing that no matter what type of music a person prefers, the way that the brain reacts to that music is surprisingly uniform!

Dr. Jonathan Burdette of Wake Forest University says

“Music is primal. It affects all of us, but in very personal, unique ways,” said Burdette, a neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “Your interaction with music is different than mine, but it’s still powerful.

“Your brain has a reaction when you like or don’t like something, including music. We’ve been able to take some baby steps into seeing that, and ‘dislike’ looks different than ‘like’ and much different than ‘favorite.'”   You can read the entire article at Science Daily.  Today brain research is looking at how music can affect brain plasticity, how it can enhance learning, and how it can slow down diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.   Everyone knows that music is so powerful in their lives, and brings such great joy and pleasure, and yet we take it for granted.  We are used to hearing music in the grocery story, the elevator, the mall or pretty much everywhere, but because of that, we learn to tune it out and not really focus on it.

When we choose music that we specifically want to listen to for it’s positive benefits, as well as the joy it brings, this is when this specific brain activity will be seen!

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Music during Brain Surgery

June 4th, 2017 · how the brain works, music and brain cancer

Have you ever wondered about music during brain surgery?  For decades I’ve been reading about people who play violin, saxophone, guitar, even bagpipes during surgery.  I’ve even seen a video of a man singing an operatic aria during brain surgery…and doing so beautifully!  Why does this happen so frequently?

Just this morning, I received a message from a lady who was having knee replacement surgery.  Here’s what she said “I woke up in the middle of my knee replacement surgery, which was being done with spinal anesthesia and twilight sleep. I didn’t feel pain, but really didn’t want to hear the sound of the electric saw and drill the surgeons were using on my leg. It wasn’t supposed to happen–the anesthesiologist wasn’t paying attention. And she was very apologetic when I spoke up and said that I’d really rather not be awake.”

Imagine if she had had the Surgical Serenity Solutions!  Even if she began to regain consciousness, she would not hear the drilling, sawing, or conversations.  Of course, during brain surgery, one cannot wear headphones!

So, is there a purpose to doing brain surgery under regional anesthesia?  According to a website called,

“The decision to open a human body isn’t a light one for doctors to make. So are the physicians and patients featured in the videos below totally nuts to be playing musical instruments, singing, reading and chatting during surgeries?

Not at all. Seems odd, right? But there are some perks to staying awake during surgery. A patient who can answer questions in real-time and respond to stimuli can help guide a doctor during complicated procedures.”

Not only that, but some brain tumors have spread throughout the brain and do not have clear borders.  Awake brain surgery can assist in shrinking these tumors.   So the doctors can seriously benefit from being able to talk to patients whose brain tumors affect their speech and cause tremors, but also, in the case of gliomas.

Here are some really fascinating videos from the article on awake brain surgery.


I believe that it’s important for us to understand this phenomenon and, at the same time, understand that the brain has absolutely no nerve endings, therefore it can’t feel pain when the brain is operated on.  However, the scalp does and the bone does, so local anesthetics must be used to numb those areas in order to get to the brain.

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Brain Science looks at Music’s Effects

April 27th, 2017 · how the brain works, music and the brain

I’ve always been fascinated by brain science and how music affects our brains and why we humans respond so powerfully to music of all kinds!  Luckily for me, brain scientists are also really interested in this subject and new articles come out frequently that help to explain this phenomenon to us!

Today I came across a very interesting article that expounded upon the 8 surprising ways that music affects our brains.  One of my biggest dreams is to find at least one way, and maybe a few more ways that we can use music to noticeably improve our quality of life!  Here’s what this lady says:  This fabulous article can be found at  Enjoy!

1. Happy/sad music affects how we see neutral faces:

We can usually pick if a piece of music is particularly happy or sad, but this isn’t just a subjective idea that comes from how it makes us feel. In fact, our brains actually respond differently to happy and sad music.

Even short pieces of happy or sad music can affect us. One study showed that after hearing a short piece of music, participants were more likely to interpret a neutral expression as happy or sad, to match the tone of the music they heard. This also happened with other facial expressions, but was most notable for those that were close to neutral.

Something else that’s really interesting about how our emotions are affected by music is that there are two kind of emotions related to music: perceived emotions and felt emotions.

This means that sometimes we can understand the emotions of a piece of music without actually feeling them, which explains why some of us find listening to sad music enjoyable, rather than depressing.

Unlike in real life situations, we don’t feel any real threat or danger when listening to music, so we can perceive the related emotions without truly feeling them—almost like vicarious emotions.


2. Ambient noise can improve creativity

We all like to pump up the tunes when we’re powering through our to-do lists, right? But when it comes to creative work, loud music may not be the best option.

It turns out that moderate noise level is the sweet spot for creativity. Even more than low noise levels, ambient noise apparently gets our creative juices flowing, and doesn’t put us off the way high levels of noise do.

The way this works is that moderate noise levels increase processing difficulty which promotes abstract processing, leading to higher creativity. In other words, when we struggle (just enough) to process things as we normally would, we resort to more creative approaches.

In high noise levels, however, our creative thinking is impaired because we’re overwhelmed and struggle to process information efficiently.

This is very similar to how temperature and lighting can affect our productivity, where paradoxically a slightly more crowded place can be beneficial.


3. Our music choices can predict our personality

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Take this one with a grain of salt, because it’s only been tested on young adults (that I know of), but it’s still really interesting.

In a study of couples who spent time getting to know each other, looking at each other’s top ten favorite songs actually provided fairly reliable predictions as to the listener’s personality traits.

The study used five personality traits for the test: openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability.

Interestingly, some traits were more accurately predicted based on the person’s listening habits than others. For instance, openness to experience, extraversion and emotional stability were the easiest to guess correctly. Conscientiousness, on the other hand, wasn’t obvious based on musical taste.

Here is also a break-down of how the different genres correspond to our personality, according to a study conducted at Heriot-Watt University:

music and personality


To break it down, here is the connection they have found:

  • Blues fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle and at ease
  • Jazz fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing and at ease
  • Classical music fans have high self-esteem, are creative, introvert and at ease
  • Rap fans have high self-esteem and are outgoing
  • Opera fans have high self-esteem, are creative and gentle
  • Country and western fans are hardworking and outgoing
  • Reggae fans have high self-esteem, are creative, not hardworking, outgoing, gentle and at ease
  • Dance fans are creative and outgoing but not gentle
  • Indie fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard working, and not gentle
  • Bollywood fans are creative and outgoing
  • Rock/heavy metal fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard-working, not outgoing, gentle, and at ease
  • Chart pop fans have high self-esteem, are hardworking, outgoing and gentle, but are not creative and not at ease
  • Soul fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle, and at ease

Of course, generalizing based on this study is very hard. However looking at the science of introverts and extroverts, there is some clear overlap.

4. Music can significantly distract us while driving (contrary to common belief)

Another study done on teenagers and young adults focused on how their driving is affected by music.

Drivers were tested while listening to their own choice of music, silence or “safe” music choices provided by the researchers. Of course, their own music was preferred, but it also proved to be more distracting: drivers made more mistakes and drove more aggressively when listening to their own choice of music.

Even more surprising: music provided by the researchers proved to be more beneficial than no music at all. It seems that unfamiliar, or uninteresting, music is best for safe driving.


5. Music training can significantly improve our motor and reasoning skills

We generally assume that learning a musical instrument can be beneficial for kids, but it’s actually useful in more ways than we might expect. One study showed that children who had three years or more musical instrument training performed better than those who didn’t learn an instrument in auditory discrimination abilities and fine motor skills.


They also tested better on vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning skills, which involve understanding and analyzing visual information, such as identifying relationships, similarities and differences between shapes and patterns.

These two areas in particular are quite removed from musical training as we imagine it, so it’s fascinating to see how learning to play an instrument can help kids develop such a wide variety of important skills.

Similar research shows this correlation for exercise and motor skills in the same way, which is also fascinating.


6. Classical music can improve visual attention

It’s not just kids that can benefit from musical training or exposure. Stroke patients in one small study showed improved visual attention while listening to classical music.

The study also tried white noise and silence to compare the results, and found that, like the driving study mentioned earlier, silence resulted in the worst scores.

Because this study was so small, the conclusions need to be explored further for validation, but I find it really interesting how music and noise can affect our other senses and abilities—in this case, vision.


7. One-sided phone calls are more distracting than normal conversations

Another study focused on noise, rather than music, showed that when it comes to being distracted by the conversations of others, phone calls where we can only hear one side of the conversation are the worst offenders.

After a survey showed that up to 82% of people find overhearing cellphone conversations annoying, Veronica Galván, a cognitive psychologist at the University of San Diego, decided to study why these are such a pain.

In the study, participants completed word puzzles while one half of them overheard one side of a mundane phone conversation in the background. The other half of the volunteers heard the entire conversation as it took place between two people in the room.

Those who heard the one-sided phone conversation found it more distracting than those who heard both people speaking. They also remembered more of the conversation, showing that it had grabbed their attention more than those who heard both sides and didn’t remember as much of the discussion.

The unpredictability of a one-sided conversation seems to be the cause of it grabbing our attention more. Hearing both sides of a conversation, on the other hand, gives us more context which makes it easier to tune out the distraction.

Then again, as we’ve explored before, getting distracted is often not such a bad things for various reasons.


8. Music helps us exercise

Back to music again, and we can see that just like silence doesn’t help us to be more creative or better drivers, it’s not much use when we’re exercising, either.

Research on the effects of music during exercise has been done for years. In 1911, an American researcher, Leonard Ayres, found that cyclists pedaled faster while listening to music than they did in silence.

This happens because listening to music can drown out our brain’s cries of fatigue. As our body realizes we’re tired and wants to stop exercising, it sends signals to the brain to stop for a break. Listening to music competes for our brain’s attention, and can help us to override those signals of fatigue, though this is mostly beneficial for low- and moderate-intensity exercise. During high-intensity exercise, music isn’t as powerful at pulling our brain’s attention away from the pain of the workout.

Not only can we push through the pain to exercise longer and harder when we listen to music, but it can actually help us to use our energy more efficiently. A 2012 study showed that cyclists who listened to music required 7% less oxygen to do the same work as those who cycled in silence.

Some recent research has shown that there’s a ceiling effect on music at around 145 bpm, where anything higher doesn’t seem to add much motivation, so keep that in mind when choosing your workout playlist. Here is how this breaks down for different genres:

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 8.29.58 AM


Now if we team up these different “tempos” with the actual work-out we’re doing, we can be in much better sync and find the right beat for our exercise. If you match up the above with the graphic below it should be super easy to get into a good groove:

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 8.30.17 AM

So in the same way that exercising makes us happier, it’s not surprising that music adds significantly to our work-out success.

What have you noticed about how music affects you? Let us know in the comments.

Image credits: Suites Culturelles, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Ali eminov, PaceDJ

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