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How Music Affects the Human Brain

by
author image Vanesa Dabul
Vanesa Dabul is a scientist who began writing in 2002, when her work in stem cell and tissue engineering appeared in the journal "Experimental Eye Research." She has written for publications in the medical design world and maintains her own science blog. Dabul holds a Master of Science in mechanical engineering and a Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering from the University of Miami.
How Music Affects the Human Brain
Young girl listening to headphones in the car. Photo Credit Noel Hendrickson/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The brain is the human body's control center. The largest part of the brain is the cerebral cortex, which can be divided into symmetrical left and right brain hemispheres. The right brain processes information in an intuitive, creative, and imaging manner. The left brain is involved with analytic thinking, such as verbal or mathematical matters. The corpus callosum connects the left and right brain hemispheres and facilitates communication between the two hemispheres.

Shifting States of Consciousness

Music has the potential to alter a person's state of consciousness. For example, with music therapy, it is possible to shift a person's perception of time from virtual time, perceived in a left brain mode, to experimental time, which is perceived through the memory. Virtual time can be described as hours, minutes, and seconds.

In experimental time, individuals experience a state of tension followed by a state of resolution. The rate of the experimental time sequence influences time perception. Since music causes states of tension and resolution cycles, slow moving music can lengthen the perception of time because an individual's memory has more time to experience those cycle states. This can cause clock time to become distorted and people can lose track of time. According to research conducted by Oliver Sacks, humans keep time to music, involuntarily, even when not consciously paying attention to it.

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Integration of Both Left and Right Brain Hemispheres

Music may activate the flow of stored memory across the corpus callosum. This allows the right and left brain hemispheres to work in harmony rather than in conflict. Since music is nonverbal in nature, it will trigger the right hemisphere. When used in a therapeutic nature, the verbalization of words will trigger the logical left brain at the same time. Therefore, music therapy allows communication between the left and right brain.

Imagining Music Mentally

Brain imaging techniques discovered by Robert Zatorre and his colleagues demonstrate that imagining music can activate the auditory cortex almost as strongly as listening to it. They also showed that imagining music also stimulates the motor cortex, and imagining the action of playing music activates the auditory cortex. This means that a person can hear music even if it is not really playing.

Synesthesia and Music

Synesthesia happens when perception in one sense activates a perception in another sense. A person who experiences musical synesthesia may see a color, smell something, experience a taste, or feel a change in temperature due to the music they are listing to. Chromesthesia is a specific form of synesthesia whereby a person sees visual images, colors, or shapes when they are listening to music. Synesthesia occurs when there is increased "cross-talk" between different cerebral regions, and music aids this "cross-talk".

Music and Creativity

Music stimulates the production of alpha and theta waves in the brain. Highly creative people have a different pattern of brain waves than normal or non-creative individuals. Big bursts of alpha brain waves induce creativity. Similarly, theta brain waves are associated with the process of dreaming, states of enhanced creativity, learning, and relaxation. Thus, music has been shown to stimulate creativity.

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References

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