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The Effect of Music on Human Health and Brain Growth

How might music enhance cognitive performance? It's not clear, but the researchers speculated that listening to music helps organize the firing of nerve cells in the right half of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher functions. According to this construct, music — or at least some forms of music — acts as an "exercise" that warms up selected brain cells, allowing them to process information more efficiently. It's an interesting theory, but before you rush out to stock up on recordings of Mozart's music, you should know that even in the original research, the "Mozart effect" was modest 8 to 9 IQ points and temporary 15 minutes.

And in reviewing 16 studies of Mozart's music and human cognitive function, a Harvard psychologist concluded that the effect was even smaller, amounting to no more than 2. It's a sour note, but it's hardly a requiem for the theory that music may boost cognitive function. In fact, the divergent results should serve as a prelude to additional research.

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And even if listening to music turns out to have little long-term effect on cognition, a review reported that learning to play an instrument may enhance the brain's ability to master tasks involving language skills, memory, and attention. In every era of human history and in every society around the globe, music has allowed people to express their feelings and communicate with others. More than simply expressing emotions, music can alter them; as British dramatist William Congreve put it in , "Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.

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Few things are more stressful than illness and surgery. Can music reduce stress in these difficult circumstances? Several trials show it can.

A study from New York examined how music affects surgical patients. Forty cataract patients with an average age of 74 volunteered for the trial. Half were randomly assigned to receive ordinary care; the others got the same care but also listened to music of their choice through headphones before, during, and immediately after the operations.


But the patients surrounded by silence remained hypertensive throughout the operation, while the pressures of those who listened to music came down rapidly and stayed down into the recovery room, where the average reduction was an impressive 35 mm Hg systolic the top number and 24 mm Hg diastolic the bottom number. The listeners also reported that they felt calmer and better during the operation.

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The ophthalmologic surgeons had no problems communicating with their patients over the sound of the music, but the researchers didn't ask the doctors if their patients' improved blood pressure readings made them more relaxed as they did their work. Earlier research, though, found that surgeons showed fewer signs of stress and demonstrated improved performance while listening to self-selected music.

A study of 80 patients undergoing urologic surgery under spinal anesthesia found that music can decrease the need for supplementary intravenous sedation. In this trial, patients were able to control the amount of sedative they received during their operation. Patients who were randomly assigned to listen to music needed less calming medication than those assigned to listen to white noise or to the chatter and clatter of the operating room itself.

In the cataract and urologic surgery studies, the patients were awake during their operations. But a study of 10 critically ill postoperative patients reported that music can reduce the stress response even when patients are not conscious. All the patients were receiving the powerful intravenous sedative propofol, so they could be maintained on breathing machines in the intensive care unit ICU. Half the patients were randomly assigned to wear headphones that played slow movements from Mozart piano sonatas, while the other half wore headphones that did not play music.

Nurses who didn't know which patients were hearing music reported that those who heard music required significantly less propofol to maintain deep sedation than those patients wearing silent headphones. The music recipients also had lower blood pressures and heart rates as well as lower blood levels of the stress hormone adrenaline and the inflammation-promoting cytokine interleukin Neither of the operating room studies specified the type of music used, while the ICU trial used slow classical music.

7 Ways Music Affects the Body: Here's How Science Says Sound Moves Us

An Italian study of 24 healthy volunteers, half of whom were proficient musicians, found that tempo is important. Slow or meditative music produced a relaxing effect; faster tempos produced arousal, but immediately after the upbeat music stopped, the subjects' heart rates and blood pressures came down to below their usual levels, indicating relaxation. According to Arnold Steinhardt, a founding member and first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet, chamber music audiences nearly always include many health care practitioners, "everything from podiatrists to psychiatrists, since there seems to be a mysterious and powerful underground railroad linking medicine and music.

Perhaps music is an equally effective agent of healing, and doctors and musicians are part of a larger order serving the needs of mankind. Perhaps they recognize each other as brothers and sisters. Many doctors love music, and many are fine musicians in their own right, playing everything from Dixieland to rock.

There are classical orchestras composed entirely of doctors and medical students in Boston, New York, L. It's not just a question of education or income; apart from a lawyer's orchestra in Atlanta, there are no orchestras composed of attorneys, engineers, computer scientists, or bankers. And several medical schools have started courses that use music to shape future physicians' listening skills.

Soothing jangled nerves is one thing; raising sagging spirits, another. Bright, cheerful music can make people of all ages feel happy, energetic, and alert, and music even has a role in lifting the mood of people with depressive illnesses. An authoritative review of research performed between and reported that in four trials, music therapy reduced symptoms of depression, while a fifth study found no benefit. A study of 60 adults with chronic pain found that music was able to reduce pain, depression, and disability.

And a meta-analysis found that music-assisted relaxation can improve the quality of sleep in patients with sleep disorders. Bach may never replace Prozac, but when it comes to depression, even a little help strikes a welcome chord. Falling is a serious medical problem, particularly for people over 65; in fact, one of every three senior citizens suffers at least one fall during the course of a year.

Can music help?

Music and the brain: the neuroscience of music and musical appreciation

A study says it can. The subjects were men and women 65 and older who were at risk of falling but who were free of major neurologic and orthopedic problems that would limit walking. Half the volunteers were randomly assigned to a program that trained them to walk and perform various movements in time to music, while the other people continued their usual activities.

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Similar programs of movement to music appear to improve the mobility of patients with Parkinson's disease. Few things are more depressing than strokes, and since stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, few things are more important. Music cannot solve a problem this large, but a study suggests it can help. The expansion of primary and association auditory cortices and their connections, associated with the increased size of the cerebellum and areas of prefrontal and premotor cortex linked through basal ganglia structures, heralded a shift to an aesthetics based on sound, and to abilities to entrain to external rhythmic inputs.

The first musical instrument used by our ancestors was the voice. The ear is always open and, unlike vision and the eyes or the gaze, sound cannot readily be averted. But, as Langer , p. Some support for these ideas comes from the work of Mithen, who has argued that spoken language and music evolved from a proto-language, a musi-language which stemmed from primate calls and was used by the Neanderthals; it was emotional but without words as we know them Mithen, The suggestion is that our language of today emerged via a proto-language, driven by gesture, framed by musicality and performed by the flexibility which accrued with expanded anatomical developments, not only of the brain, but also of the coordination of our facial, pharyngeal and laryngeal muscles.

Around the same time with a precision of many thousands of years , the bicameral brain, although remaining bipartite, with the two cooperating cerebral hemispheres coordinating life for the individual in cohesion with the surrounding environment, became differently balanced with regard to the functions of the two sides: pointing and proposition left as opposed to urging and yearning right Trimble, A highly significant finding to emerge from the studies of the effects in the brain of listening to music is the emphasis on the importance of the right non-dominant hemisphere. Thus, lesions following cerebral damage lead to impairments of appreciation of pitch, timbre and rhythm Stewart et al , and studies using brain imaging have shown that the right hemisphere is preferentially activated when listening to music in relation to the emotional experience, and that even imagining music activates areas on this side of the brain Blood et al , This should not be taken to imply that there is a simple left—right dichotomy of functions in the human brain.

However, it is the case that traditional neurology has to a large extent ignored the talents of the non-dominant hemisphere, much in favour of the dominant normally left hemisphere. In part this stems from an overemphasis on the role of the latter in propositional language and a lack of interest in the emotional intonations of speech prosody that give so much meaning to expression.

The link between music and emotion seems to have been accepted for all time. Plato considered that music played in different modes would arouse different emotions, and as a generality most of us would agree on the emotional significance of any particular piece of music, whether it be happy or sad; for example, major chords are perceived to be cheerful, minor ones sad.

The tempo or movement in time is another component of this, slower music seeming less joyful than faster rhythms. This reminds us that even the word motion is a significant part of e motion , and that in the dance we are moving — as we are moved emotionally by music. Until recently, musical theorists had largely concerned themselves with the grammar and syntax of music rather than with the affective experiences that arise in response to music.

Music, if it does anything, arouses feelings and associated physiological responses, and these can now be measured.

Such a phenomenological approach directly contradicts the empirical techniques of so much current neuroscience in this area, yet is of direct concern to psychiatry, and topics such as compositional creativity. If it is a language, music is a language of feeling. This idea seems difficult for a philosophical mind to follow, namely that there can be knowledge without words. There is an extensive literature attesting to some associations between creativity and psychopathology Trimble, The links seem to vary with different kinds of high achievement, and mood disorders are over-represented.

Although samples of creative people have a significant excess of cyclothymia and bipolarity, florid manic—depressive illness is relatively uncommon. Biographies of famous musicians are of considerable interest in exploring brain—behaviour associations. Attempts to transform descriptions of people from biographies into specific DSM diagnoses cannot achieve high levels of validity and reliability, since lack of autobiographical materials and reliable contemporary medical accounts makes any diagnostic formulation necessarily tentative.

It is possible that similar associations occur in non-Western composers, although studies have not been published. In contrast, none seems to have had schizophrenia.

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London: Heinemann. San Diego, CA: Harcourt. Prechtl Oxford: Blackwell , 46— Delamont, R. Periodicity of a noninvasive measure of cardiac vagal tone during non-rapid eye movement sleep in non-sleep-deprived and sleep-deprived normal subjects. Dewey, J. Experience and Education.

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