The Brain and Music

latest research and information

The Brain and Music header image 1

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!

→ No CommentsTags: ··

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!!

→ No CommentsTags:

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!

→ No CommentsTags: ·

Is Rhythm hard-wired into Humans: Music, and Circadian Rhythms

August 30th, 2016 · how the brain works, music and the brain


Rhythm is Hardwired in Humans

Is rhythm hard-wired into humans?  We all know the irresistible feelings of wanting to clap along to music, or snap your fingers, or get up and dance!  When these urges wash over us, and when we see other people around us start doing the same thing, we feel that it’s OK to give in to these urges!  It greatly enhances the enjoyment of the moment.  It makes us feel alive and uplifted!

But is it actually hard-wired into humans?   This is not an easy question.  Rhythm is an integral part of our bodies and our world.  On the human level, we have the rhythm of heart-beat and breathing. Those are involuntary rhythms that are indications of how healthy we are.  But when we are in a state of dis-ease, they are an early sign that something is wrong.  An erratic heart-beat and rapid, shallow, breathing, lets the physician/healer know that something is awry.  And music can make a difference.  Having a slow, steady beat in an ill person’s room, whether just a rhythmic pulse, or as a part of soft music, can actually be helpful to stabilizing body rhythms, thanks to the process of rhythmic entrainment.

In terms of our world, we have they rhythms and cycles of day and night, they cycles of the four seasons, and the cycles and the phases of the moon, among other things.  Rhythm is everywhere and they’re not always steady and equal.  Even the length of day and night change, according to our proximity to the equator.  But back to the original question:  are humans hard-wired for rhythm?  Well, here is what one very reputable source tells us:

from a book entitled Complications in Anesthesia,  “Humans evolved on a planet with light and dark cycles…as such, we are governed by the Circadian rhythms, hard-wired into our bodies.”

Another source,, reports that “Music is processed in areas throughout the brain, and some of the cognitive processes involved in music, such as memory, emotion, and perception, share neural circuitry with more general brain functioning.  But research has also found that some neural networks seem to be specifically dedicated to the processing of music.  For example, there are auditory circuits used in the perception of music that are not used for speech recognition or for other kinds of sounds.  The circuitry required for processing pitch intervals or complex rhythmic structures is probably unique to music and not used for anything else.”

→ No CommentsTags: ·

The Brain under Regional and General Anesthesia: Music’s Effect

July 30th, 2016 · music and the brain

How does the brain under anesthesia act?  And can music still have a positive effect on the brain?  I talk to lots and lots of people daily and many want to understand how music can have a positive impact on someone having surgery.  You’ve heard me say many times, that the brain is the last unexplored frontier.

First we must understand that when you are under general anesthesia, you are not actually asleep, although the doctor may say that he is “putting you to sleep.”  The reality is that the anesthesiologist is putting you into a coma; one from which you can be fairly easily awakened.  If you were actually sleeping, you would definitely wake up when the cutting started!  So what is going on in the brain when the patient is in this induced coma?

I did some research on this interesting and important question, and here’s what I found:  Dr. Ulrica Nilsson is a PhD, certified registered nurse anesthetist, CRNA.  She is an authority on the use of music during surgery, and here is what she said:

Registrations through EEG have shown that music can decrease the bioelectrical activity in the brain from predominant beta waves to alpha and theta waves, which can have consequences for reduction of anxiety, tension and sleeplessness (Shawn 1999). The mechanism of the pain reducing effect of music has been explained by the gate control theory, which suggests that the transmission of potentially painful impulses can be modulated by a “cellular gating mechanism” found in the spinal cord (Melzack 1973, Whipple & Glynn 1992). Alternatively the beneficial effects may be a result of distraction through cognitive coping strategies by competing stimuli that reduce pain perception (Fernandes & Turk 1989). Music can also act as a distracting agent to refocus the attention from negative stimuli causing the stress, to something that is pleasant; it occupies one’s mind with something familiar, soothing and preferred (Siegele 1974, McCaffery 1992, Mok & Wong 2003), allowing people to escape to “their own world”.

Nilsson et al (2001 and 2003b) have shown that patients which have been exposed to soft relaxing music intraoperatively had significantly lower pain scores on the first day of surgery compared with the control group patients. Intraoperative music can also lead to less postoperative fatigue and that patients became mobile earlier i.e. time to sit after surgery, (Nilsson et al 2001).

Because this research is at least 15 years old (although still valid), I refer you to the study that was done on our Surgical Serenity Solutions headphones and music!  The results indicate that patients under general anesthesia still respond to music very positively and have a 20% less perception of pain.  In the scientific world, that is huge.  To read this study go HERE.

To purchase the Surgical Serenity Headphones or download, go HERE.

→ No CommentsTags: