Music and Brain Chemistry

By: Kylie Luo and Shaan Rehman as part of the collaboration with United Under Arts

Music has commonly been studied in correlation with Alzheimer’s disease because of its ability to ‘awaken’ an Alzheimer’s patient for a few minutes. What’s less commonly known is how music stimulates the brain to remember and how it can change the brain in daily life.

In order to understand how music affects brain function, understanding brain anatomy is very important. There are 4 main lobes- the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and the occipital lobe. Each controls a different aspect of the body, for instance, the frontal lobe is the control panel of a person’s personality, while the temporal lobe is responsible for auditory perception. The parietal lobe is in charge of sensory perception, while the occipital lobe is tasked with visual perception. Though all of these lobes have separate functions, they can all still communicate through a mechanism called the neural network which is composed of neurons that communicate through chemical signals called neurotransmitters. One of the main neurotransmitters in the neural network is dopamine. Dopamine, or the feel-happy neurotransmitter, plays a role in movement, emotional response, thinking, focus, attention, memory, and acts as the brain’s reward system. For example, eating ice cream releases dopamine, making a person feel happy which makes them want more.

So how does music tie into brain chemistry? A theory deemed the Mozart Effect claims that listening to Mozart can make a person smarter. Several studies have indicated that listening to Mozart before a test does enhance comprehension, but only temporarily. But why does Mozart make a person smarter? A study by McGill University put this to the test and found that while listening to music, not just Mozart, dopamine levels in the brain can increase by at least 9%. What does this increase mean for cognitive function? As observed in an MRI, a patient's brain was more active when listening to music versus not listening to music, even up to 15 minutes after listening. This indicates that music stimulates the brain in a fashion to where it enhances its capability. For the frontal lobe, this means thinking and decision making is enhanced; in the temporal lobe language and words can be better interpreted; increased activity in the occipital lobe works in hand with the parietal lobe where hand-eye coordination ability increases. Overall, this means an increase in function and ability of most, if not all, aspects of the brain. These observations also led to the discovery that listening to music can accelerate the recovery process of damage to the brain because the brain is more active. This has led to treatments such as music therapy which has been able to help people with concussions, and even diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

In addition to enhancing brain function, music has also been proven to have an impact on emotions. Imagine watching a scary movie in a dark room. A quiet, eerie soundtrack plays overhead, but all of a sudden there’s a loud crescendo in the song. Feeling scared? That’s the body’s fight or flight response kicking in. This is the body’s way of assessing danger: tough it out or run. It is initiated by a release in adrenaline, the release of which can be triggered by listening to music

Similarly, the amygdala in the brain, a component of the limbic system, is highly associated with emotions. Music has the ability to conjure strong emotions and alter the mood of individuals. Studies show that emotions elicited by listening to music are essential to the maintenance and regulation of emotions that have a biological connection to human survival. A common misunderstanding is that emotions evoked by music only provide aesthetic experiences.

However, as shown in Figure 1, a study done by Scientists Blood and Zatorre shows changes in regional cerebral blood flow measured during intense emotional experiences. After the subjects listened to music that gave them a “chill” (intense emotional experience), the intensity of their chill coincided with cerebral blood flow decrease in the amygdala. Music can evoke emotions and alter brain chemistry, specifically the amygdala and other components of the brain like the ventral striatum, the midbrain, the anterior insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the orbitofrontal cortex.

This research is important in not only better understanding how the brain functions, but how this knowledge can be used under medical circumstances. The information gathered from these studies have been used to compile methods to treat people who suffer from conditions ranging from concussions to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The way that music alters brain chemistry opens up many opportunities in the medical, psychological, and therapeutic fields, continually leading to new discoveries about the ever mysterious brain.


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