The Brain and Music

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The Neuro-chemistry of Music: there’s more research!

January 13th, 2018 · music research, Neurochemistry of music

music and endorphins, dopamine

Neuro-chemistry of music

The neuro-chemistry of music is endlessly fascinating to me!  People have loved music for thousands and thousands of years.  We know intuitively that music can cause us to feel a huge range of emotions…ecstacy and thrills, to devastion and pain.  What would romance be without its songs and what would worship and spiritual life be without its songs?  Imagine an army marching into war without pipes and drums, trumpets and clarinets!

For hundreds of years, no one knew exactly HOW or WHY music elicited all of these emotions…just that it does and we are so happy about that!  At the end of the 20th century, finally scientists began to have the tools to look at the brain in a whole new way.  This is when brain research began to really accelerate.  Neuro-chemistry books, articles and research are easy to find.  All you have to do is search for Brain Chemicals and music, to find dozens and dozens of studies on the brain and music.

As a blogger and a music researcher myself, I keep close tabs on what brings people to my blogs and my sites.  I am interested to know what other people want to know and understand about the healing power of music.  Earlier today, I was looking at some of this analytic  information and I saw that someone had come to my brain and music blog by searching for “is there scientific evidence on music raising endorphins?”  When I searching for the same, I came across so many fascinating NEW studies that have just been done in the past 3-5 years  One of the best ones is, “Music Turns on Feel-good chemicals in the Brain.”  This appeared on the BBC website.’

Another great one is, “The Neuroscience of Music.”  If you’ve always wanted to understand more about how music works in our brains and in our bodies.  start with these two articles, and then get into the 200-300+ blog posts here in my blog.  There’s nothing more fascinating to those of us who love music as the lifeblood of our lives.  If you’re looking for a career that will benefit nearly anyone in the world, think about going into music therapy, or into science and then neuroscience!  I’m available to consult if you’re interested!



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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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