Music and the Brain

Community Featured

By Dr. T. Jock Murray

For The Advocate

I was concerned when I saw Janet with tears running down her face. We were in a music store in Charleston and she was standing by a wall of CDs and earphones. She explained that she was listening to Martha Argerich playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto and found the beauty of the music emotionally overwhelming. Many people have this kind of emotional response to a piece of music.

What is music?

Simply put, music is organized sound which the brain dissociates into component elements of pitch, timbre, melody, harmony and rhythm. Every society has its music, and some of the oldest archeological artifacts are musical instruments. Even earlier there was the oral tradition of music that passed down the history, beliefs and celebrations of each culture. Living in the Maritimes, we can see how our history and traditions were perpetuated in songs.

One culture might have difficulty appreciating the music of another, and even within a culture all might not appreciate the same music. The older folk of every generation thinks the popular music of the younger generation is not music but just noise. Regardless of our likes and dislikes, music has an amazing significance in our lives. During this COVID-19 crisis, music has been one of the ways people dealt with the stress and loneliness of isolation. Everyone seems to be wearing earphones these days, and almost all are listening to music. Never has so much music been available, and a click can bring you almost all music recorded in the last century, from Enrico Caruso in 1916 to Drake or Ed Sheeran today.

The brain and music

There has been a lot of interest in how the brain perceives music. Areas identified with music in the brain can be localized to the auditory cortex, the limbic system and the lower portion of the frontal cortex. Hearing pleasurable music stimulates the area of the nucleus accumbens near the limbic system, similar to that seen with sexual activity and narcotic consumption, which probably gives meaning to the cry, “sex, drugs and rock and roll!” It’s difficult to add chocolate and nicotine to the anthem, but they affect cells in the same area. It also plays a role in stress and anxiety, motivation, aversion and reinforcement learning. The area of the nucleus accumbens has been referred to as a gratification site in the brain, and is currently a major focus of interest in research on music and on addictions.

Clinical observations

of music and the brain

Although there are many shared relationships between music and language, they can be seen to be separate. People who lose their speech after a stroke may still be able to sing the lyrics to songs. When a relative of mine had progressive Alzheimer’s disease and was speaking little, she could still sing all the songs from her early life in the 1930s and 1940s, and although she never played the piano, was able to accurately pick out “God Save The Queen” with two fingers.

Some patients after a stroke may lose the emotional response to music. This happened to a friend of mine, a neurologist, who published his account of his difficulty playing the piano after his stroke and his loss of the emotional feeling for the music he previously loved. The Russian composer Vissarion Shebalin was still able to compose wonderful music after he lost his speech from a stroke. Maurice Ravel was able to compose new musical ideas in his head when he developed dementia, but later lost the ability to write them down.

The neurosurgeon at the Montreal Neurological Institute, Wilder Penfield, used stimulation to find the focus of epileptic seizures, and with some patients the electrode would evoke an experience of hearing music. They heard music, not as a vague memory but a vivid playing of the orchestra or choir, with the instruments and voices as vivid as if they were there.

Some more unusual phenomena related to the brain and music are people who have epileptic seizures as a reaction to certain musical sounds (musicogenic epilepsy) and others who have musical hallucinations. Some see colors when hearing music (colour-hearing synesthesia), a kind of crosstalk between neurons in the brain. Although seeing colours with music can occur in many people (my daughter had this), it is particularly interesting when musicians like Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Skriabin, Duke Ellington, and Leonard Bernstein describe their musical colours.

Musicians’ brain are structurally different than non-musicians, with enlargements in the areas related to music. It is also interesting to note that after years of practice, the cortical sensory representation for the left fingering hand of violinists, which does all the complex action, is enlarged but not the area for the right bowing hand.

Music therapy

Music has always been known to have healing qualities. Music was used for recovering soldiers in both world wars, and from this came special training in music therapy. Music has been known since ancient times for its ability to produce relaxation and calmness, and is now used in programs to reduce stress and also pain. A metanalysis of 23 studies of music in people with heart disease showed they had lower BP, pulse rate and anxiety levels.

The observation that patients with aphasia might be able to sing lyrics gave rise to Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT), using singing to improve speech. Many hospitals now incorporate music therapy, particularly pediatric hospitals, and it plays a large part in programs for the elderly. Engaging with the music has even greater physiological benefits than passively listening so activity is usually combined with the playing and singing of music.

Music and the education

of youth

When we were babysitting our three-month-old granddaughter, Madison, anytime she was crying uncontrollably Janet noticed that she would immediately stop and seemed transfixed when Bach was played, but would immediately start crying when the music changed. The research on the “The Mozart Effect” refers to the idea that infant brains are positively stimulated by listening to music, even in utero, but that research is pretty hazy. But all mothers know they can soothe their upset babies by singing lullabies and other songs.

Research shows that the interconnected influences of music to other abilities and skills is stronger than for most subjects. Musical training improves language and reasoning, memorization, learning discipline, coordination, self-confidence, emotional resilience, increased attention span, and teamwork. One USA study showed that those young people with musical training scored 63 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on math scores on the pre-university SAT scores. A Canadian study showed that a year of piano lessons increased your IQ by at least three points. There is even evidence that musical training improves mathematical scores. It is interesting that for thousands of years music was a core aspect of a classical education, and only in the last century have we marginalized it in our education programs.

On a personal note

All my children were part of the wonderful music school program in Halifax in the 1970s and 1980s under Chalmers Doane, and this has had a lifelong influence. Sadly, over the years, the humanities, especially art and music programs, are regarded as marginal to the education system, and will be the first cut when budgets are tight. If we really want the best educational experiences for our youth, we should demand that music, art and the other humanities are central to their educational experience.


Dr. T. Jock Murray’s son, Brian, playing music at age four, now playing guitar daily at age 54.