Mind, Body, Soul, and Music - Specialization Week


By Meredith Schneider

Scientists have been studying the biological effects of music on the human mind for decades, but recent findings have drawn significantly more widespread academic and popular focus on the matter. An understanding of the brain’s specialized sensory for music has developed as a result of what scientists are finding—that there are individual nodes in the brain that react solely to music. This connection can aid humans in understanding the brain as it hasn’t been available to us previously.

Oliver Sacks, a foremost authority on music’s affect on human psychology.

Photo by Nitcentral.

One of the more basic but telling projects linking music to biology was the observation that musical stimuli can positively affect plant growth. It is no surprise then that from this research stemmed different areas of study, including music therapy, music medicine, the effects of music on human emotion, and many other specialized scientific studies where music plays a central role. In her extensive research on brain specialization for music, Isabelle Peretz, a professor of Psychology at the University of Montreal (CA), found that the processing of music may not, contrary to prior belief, be handled by the same modules that process speech patterns and conversation in the brain. In a review of one of her studies, she explains her hypothesis in more detail:

Music, like language, is a universal and specific trait to humans. Similarly, music appreciation, like language comprehension, appears to be the product of a dedicated brain organization. Support for the existence of music-specific neural networks is found in various pathological conditions that isolate musical abilities from the rest of the cognitive system… Multiple interconnected neural networks are engaged, of which some may capture the essence of brain specialization for music. The encoding of pitch along musical scales is likely such an essential component. The implications of the existence of such special-purpose cortical processes are that the human brain might be hardwired for music.

Brain specialization for music has branched off from many of the aforementioned studies, from which the disorder “amusia” has been identified. As a general term, “amusia” refers to the brain’s inability to correctly process pitch. There are two main variations of amusia. “Acquired amusia” is a result of brain damage, while “congenital amusia” is the result of a music processing abnormality at birth.

In more broad terms, the difference between the two is essentially nature versus nurture. Peretz’s hypothesis discusses this, when she points out brain damage and birth defects as links to neural music processing.

“Cerebrovascular accidents, traumatic brain damage, and congenital brain anomalies can lead to selective disorders of music processing,” writes Peretz. “Conversely, autism and epilepsy can reveal the autonomous functioning and the selectivity, respectively, of the neural networks that subserve music.”

When studying autism, scientists have found links between these networks and the way they affect an autistic individual. Just as some people born with autism exhibit savant-like behavior in particular areas, there are differences in this neural system when they are musically inclined.

Richard Wagner.

These studies are not only used in the scientific community to better our population’s health through music therapy and sound testing, but they are also put into use in popular culture; television, movies, and other syndicated programs use music to trigger emotions in their viewership. Without scary music, horror movies wouldn’t be as suspenseful because the viewer would have no inclination to believe that something bad is going to happen.

Alternatively, more people are inclined to feel heightened emotion at a wedding when “Here Comes the Bride” starts up before the bride has even been introduced to her guests. The neurological studies that have specified emotional connection have also paved the way for defense attorneys to lay the blame of criminals on other factors. People tried to blame the Columbine shootings on Marilyn Manson because the shooter was a fan of his music. Historically though, music has been used as a tool to motivate violence and obedience; Wagner’s compositions are said to have been a deciding factor in the terror and havoc that Hitler wreaked during the Third Reich (Wagner is also responsible for the before-mentioned “Here Comes the Bride”).

Listen: Bridal Chorus
Listen: Ride of the Valkyries

It is no surprise that—in the wake of so many interesting finds connected with the topic—music has been studied so much in congruence with human biology. The University of Missouri Kansas City, New York University, Berklee College of Music, and many other notable schools have programs of merit focused on this very science. Many people who graduate from programs go on to work with the American Music Therapy Association to apply their findings to better the lives of others.

To be able to study the brain—a muscle so imperative to civilization as a whole—within the world of music is a great feat and brings with it a greater chance of improving quality of all ostensible sentient life. Music is a global human phenomenon, and with these specialized areas of study comes the chance to maneuver language barriers and work together with something universal in the science community.