The Brain and Music

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Why the Brain responds so quickly to musical cues

December 5th, 2016 · No Comments · 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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