Music joins the heart and mind

By Tina Broad. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 18 Issue 4 (August 2012)

Tina Broad navigates some of the science around music and the brain

Acclaimed neuroscientist, Oliver Sacks, says music calls to both parts of our nature, the intellectual and emotional. ‘We may be moved to the depths,’ he says ‘even as we appreciate the formal structure of a composition.’

What’s really going on in our brain to enable us to respond to music so profoundly with both our mind and heart?

It is twenty years since the research which gave us the oft-quoted (and misrepresented!) ‘Mozart Effect.’ It looked at what happened to one aspect of listeners’ IQ tests when they were variously exposed to silence, relaxation music, or a Mozart sonata. At the time, the findings were picked up by a frenzied media, exaggerated and the fire of controversy has raged ever since.

Today, developments in neuroscience have spawned a research revolution which supports the assertion that there is a host of positive impacts on individuals and on society which come from listening to – and making – music. For example, we know a lot about the wondrous impacts of music on the physical aspects of our brain development, from our time in the womb to the end of life. The first mother-baby bond is inherently a musical one, as a baby’s brain is attuned to the musicality of its mother’s voice in what scientists believe is an important evolutionary survival strategy.

There have been lots of studies around music involving residents of nursing homes and people with mental illness which show links between music making and listening and reductions in the stress hormone, cortisol. There are reports, too, that playing classical music in Intensive Care Units produces a calming effect which reduces patients’ dependence on medication after surgery. Endorphins triggered by music provide a kind of pain relief, where dopamine creates feelings of optimism, energy and power.

Because auditory receptors cover a larger region of the brain, sounds are more potent stimuli than sights in most people. This makes music an important part of the long term rehabilitation of people after trauma or brain injury. A high profile recent example is the remarkable progress of US Congresswoman, Gabrielle Gifford, for whom music has literally been a lifeline after a gunshot wound to the head. ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ never sounded so good.

As we transition out of life, we keep our musical memories to the end. Many of us caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease have clung gratefully to the special moments that come when an otherwise unresponsive relative becomes enlivened on hearing a familiar piece of music, or sings a few lines of a favourite song fluidly and in tune even though a spoken sentence might be elusive.

While there are many benefits which come from music listening, more still come from music making, a fact which has prompted Sacks to say that musical performance is as important to a child’s education as reading and writing. Take a 2006 Canadian study, for example, which compared the effect of just one year’s violin training on children’s brain development and found long term, positive changes compared to the children’s non-playing peers.

In Australia, researchers at WA’s Murdoch University conducting the 2005 National Review of School Music Education found that music ‘uniquely contributes to the emotional, physical, social and cognitive growth of all students.’

More recently, Melbourne education researchers, Brian Caldwell and Tanya Vaughan, have written about music’s transformative impacts on disadvantaged children’s academic achievement, social and emotional wellbeing and even school attendance.

With exciting recent discoveries about the plasticity of the brain – its constant ability to repair, change, ‘relearn’ – across the entire lifespan, not just through childhood, there are salutary lessons for all of us as we age. Dust off the trumpet and get that old piano tuned! We can take inspiration from Oliver Sacks who presented himself with piano lessons for his 75th birthday, revisiting a skill he had let lapse for sixty years.

Many of the giant intellects through the ages have been active musicians. Einstein said he lived his daydreams in music: “I get most joy in life out of music.” That brings us to terrain beyond the physical, to music’s more metaphysical impacts: the place where the mind meets the heart.

Music can lift us up, bridge joy and suffering, unlock grief, release trauma and transport us to the best of times. It can be transcendent. Musicians and listeners alike often speak of becoming ‘lost’ in music, where time seems to stand still and there is a heightened sense of consciousness.

We can be moved to tears by music. We can even feel trusting enough to allow ourselves music-induced weeping while sitting next to a complete stranger at a concert. What’s going on when a musician takes a piece of music and communicates emotion? Researcher and musician, Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, has been conducting experiments on this very issue, partly spurred by a concert performance of one of his favourite pieces of music, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27, which unexpectedly left him cold. The composer had done a great job, the set of notes were perfect, so how did the pianist get it so wrong? The research is groundbreaking, because it is having a go at quantifying ‘expressivity’. Using a specially built piano with sensors under each key Levitin’s team recorded McGill’s head of piano, Thomas Plaunt, playing Chopin nocturnes with varying degrees of expression, then modified the recordings for their test subjects. Individuals were asked to rate the playing. The ‘most emotional’ performance won out.

The relationship between composer, performer and listener is a profound and sensitive one. It seems the listener’s ability to be able to pick up on and predict patterns in music creates conditions for an element of surprise which can be exploited by the expert musician. Quoted in the New York Times, cellist Yo-Yo Ma gave some insight into this by explaining the forces at play when, for example, he plays a twelve minute sonata featuring a recurring four-note melody till the final repetition where the melody expands to six notes: “If I set it up right that is when the sun comes out. It’s like you’ve been under a cloud and then you are looking once again at the vista and then the light is shining on the whole valley.”

In addition to positive impacts on the individual, the social experience of sharing music with others can build empathy and enable people from different backgrounds to put aside those differences and connect. There are many inspiring schools and communities in Australia in which this principle is writ large. Australian research has shown that characteristics of communities in which there is much musical activity include a strong sense of identity and a powerful sense of community cohesion. Music is a social glue. It binds people together across the boundaries of culture, age and ability.

These are excerpts from the liner notes of a new ABC Classics CD compilation, ‘Music for the Mind: classical music for your well-being.’