The Brain and Music

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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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How do Anxiety and Stress Affect your Brain?

March 14th, 2017 · how the brain works, music and the brain

anxiety and stressed-out traveler

Anxiety and Stress

How do anxiety and stress affect your brain?  Have YOU ever felt anxious or stressed.  If you are a normal human being the answer is definitely a resounding “YES!”  Unfortunately, anxiety and stress are just part of the human condition.  And especially in the 21st century it seems.  Every day is go-go-go from morning till night and we humans worry about everything from money to the weather, to what we’ll have for the next meal, to politics!  It’s not easy!

But there is something wonderful out there that we can all take advantage of a lot more than we often do!  And what is that?  It’s MUSIC!!  Humans have used music to destress with from pre-historic times, using the music of nature.  To this day, humans love the sounds of waves lapping the shore, wind through the pines, a babbling brook, a gentle rainstorm, or birds singing their cheerful songs.

And how do anxiety and stress affect the brain?  Well, we’ve talked about cortisol a lot in recent posts.  That seems to be the primary stress hormone that is released in the brain and it does not help the body at all if it is being produced constantly!  Cortisol damages not only the body’s organs, but also the muscle tissue and the immune system.  That is why chronic stress and anxiety are just not good for your body, mind or spirit.

My prescription for you?  Choose at least 30-60 minutes worth of your favorite music for relaxation, comfort, and soothing memories.  It’s so easy nowadays to create a playlist on YouTube, your iPod or iPhone.  You can even organize these by songs, instrumental music, bedtime favorites, holiday favorites, or hymns.  Having at least half a dozen playlists at your fingertips can be a great comfort when tough times hit.  I have so much music that I love and that comforts me, the only stress is choosing the one I want at that moment!  And it only slows me down for about 30 seconds!  Give it a try!!

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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.

For more information on this, please visit

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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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