The Brain and Music

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Music, Brain, Cortisol: What’s the issue??

February 15th, 2017 · how the brain works, music and the brain

What’s the connection between Music, Brain and Cortisol?  Neuroscientists call cortisol “The Stress Hormone.”  Why? because when humans are experiencing stress, anxiety, depression and fear, their bodies produce the hormone known as cortisol.  And what does cortisol do for the body?    Too much cortisol basically ravages the body and tears down the cells and the organs.  When your cortisol levels get high enough, due to CHRONIC stress, the brain is affected and actually shrinks!  Cortisol is different from other stress hormones such as adrenaline and norepinephrine.  Adrenaline and norepinephrine are secreted in cases of acute, short-term, situations like a fire, an accident, or a situation that feels life-threatening.  Cortisol is more associated with chronic or long-term stress.

How can music help to combat the effects of stress?  Well, glad you asked!  Music and music therapy are two powerful ways that cortisol production in the body can be reduced.   And let’s just explain the difference between music listening by the patient, and music therapy, which involves a trained music therapist who creates a therapeutic relationship with the patient and chooses music specifically for the patient’s presenting symptoms.

So what does music do to decrease cortisol production?  In 2011, at the University of Leipzig, (Germany), ( and hometown of J.S. Bach), a study was conducted on patients undergoing spinal surgery.

Effects of Music Listening on Cortisol Levels and Propofol Consumption during Spinal Anesthesia.

The patients were “double-blinded” so that one group listened to music through headphones, and the other heard some other non-musical sound.  Those that were listening to instrumental music of a “joyous” nature, required less propofol and had less cortisol in their blood samples and their salivary IGA.  Why?  Because music naturally relaxes the mind and the body.  When the muscles relax to a certain point, the body slows down on cortisol production and eventually stops.  Cortisol is not something the body needs in order to be healthy.  As I said, cortisol tears down the organs, and ravages the body.  If something as easy and as powerful as music is readily available, whether through the Surgical Serenity Solutions, or the presence of a music therapist, it should be implemented and available in all kinds of medical and behavioral health situations.

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The Effect of Music on Cognitive Performance

January 6th, 2017 · music and the brain

The effect of music on cognitive performance has been known for years.  When I was in music school, many years ago, I was required to know thousands of pieces of music!  We had to know operas, symphonies, sonatas, string quartets and more,  so well that the professor could “drop the needle” (we still used vinyl back then!) at any place in the music, and we were required to identify the composer, the work, the movement, and write several paragraphs about the piece.

I actually thought it was kind of fun, and had a pretty good ear and memory, but at one point, late in my Junior year, I came up with a method that I believed would make identification foolproof!  I decided that with the pieces that were most difficult to remember and identify, I would only listen to that piece in a certain room of the house.  When I heard that piece on the exam, I would immediately picture the room and would know…this is Prokofiev’s 5th symphony, slow movement, etc.  It really worked beautifully!

The study cited here appeared in the online journal, Inquiries, in 2013, V5, No 9.  It was taking a look at the Effect of Music on Cognitive Performance.  The abstract tells us:

“Listening to music for relaxation is common among students to counter the effects of stress or anxiety while completing difficult academic tasks. Some studies supporting this technique have shown that background music promotes cognitive performance while other studies have shown that listening to music while engaged in complex cognitive tasks can  impair performance. This study focuses on the impact different genres of music, played at different volume levels, have on the cognitive abilities of college students completing academic tasks.”

The amount of research that is coming out now in the field of music psychology is fantastic.  The power of music to affect people positively and beneficially is so amazing and we have known that anecdotally for thousands of years!  Only in the last few decades have scientists begun to document empirically how this works and how MUCH it works!  One day, music may again be a part of every physician’s solution!

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Why the Brain responds so quickly to musical cues

December 5th, 2016 · how the brain works, music and the brain

Brain responds to music

Tumpy singing with puppet at Eden Terrace

Do you know how fast YOUR brain responds to music?  How do YOU feel when you hear some favorite music?  I know that for me, just hearing a couple of bars of something from the past or the present can put a huge smile on my face and make me start dancing, swaying, clapping or marching!  As a professional musician, I guess I can probably recognize hundreds of thousands of pieces of music pretty quickly.  And for some reason, even just hearing a few seconds of the piece will also enable me to tell you not only the name and composer, but also it is indelibly associated with the first time I heard it, where I was, how old I was, and who was around me.

I’m assuming, from what I’ve learned, that as I get older, this ability might begin to fade and it might take me longer to remember the name, the composer, or the circumstances surrounding my first hearing of it.  As I watch my mother move into her 90’s, I am observing carefully how her musical memory is working.  Actually, it’s pretty amazing!  She may not remember which great-grandchild belongs to which grandchild, but when the music starts, she’s right on top of it!

And the research is there regarding not only the well-elderly and how much music improves their quality of life, but also with the frail elderly and those with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.  In the early 1990s, I conducted a clinical study at the University of Louisville, Department of Psychiatry, about the “Therapeutic Benefits of Music with Alzheimer’s Patients. ”  While working one-on-one with selected patients in a beautiful Alzheimer’s Unit here in Louisville, KY, I observed patient after patient whose cognitive awarenesses were mostly gone, i.e., they didn’t know where they were, what year it was, or even recognize family members.  It was so tragic!  But when I started playing the music from their “courting years,” their faces brightened, their toes started tapping, and sometimes, they began singing the words, and singing them accurately!  It seemed almost miraculous to me!

The good news is that music can do this for YOU right now.  I believe that many people simply forget about music as a tool for feeling good, feeling better, or a tool to relax, destress, or energize and motivate!  If you’re thinking of taking a pill for depression or anxiety, why not reason for a CD or your iTunes instead!  Your brain will do the rest!

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Music and the Brain of a Newborn Preemie

October 31st, 2016 · how the brain works, music and the brain

Preemie comes home

Out of the NICU

What is more precious than a newborn baby?  When they arrive early, it’s even more emotional because it’s usually quite a surprise and the issues can be very, very different.  Hopefully, the parents and siblings (if there are siblings!) have been singing to Mama’s belly every night from month 4-6 and they are bonding to with new brother or sister.  Any children’s song will do.  I recommend “You Are My Sunshine.”

So whats going on with the brain of the full-term newborn or preemie?  At birth, the brain is only 25% of it’s future weight.  Neuroscientists and pediatric neurologists tell us the the first three years of life are the most important!  “The brain grows dramatically and builds pathways and connections, called synapses, between its numerous cells.”According to Dr. Diane Bales, Ph.D., author of “Building Baby’s Brain: The Role of Music,” the synapses used for classical music are similar to those used for spatial and temporal reasoning, which are skills needed for math. Just listening to classical music can “turn on” the synapses.”

Knowing this is so valuable because there are dozens of infant playlists on YouTube that you can play softly in baby’s room.  If a preemie newborn is in NICU, you can request that soft lullabies or classical music be played through speakers that are created for the isolette.  Sometimes they come in pillows that can be placed at foot of isolette.  For a full-term infant who is going home in a few days (or even hours!) setting up music in the nursery is very easy.  I got my grandchildren a “Sleep Sheep” and they are wonderful and widely available at the usual places.

Why am I writing this today?  Because my fifth grandchild will be born later this week in Boston!  I’m practicing singing my lullabies and will of course bring multiple copies of the Lullaby CD I created several years ago before my first was even born!  If you’d like to purchase either the CD or the download, click here:

Enjoy your baby!!

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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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