Music and the Brain


David Silverstein MD, Samantha Sharma MD

Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School

Today at Berklee we’re hosting the inaugural M&H (Music & Health) Exchange conference.

Our first speaker, Dr David Silverstein, leads us through a fascinating overview of ‘music and the brain’, and he begins with a quotation from Hippocrates:

And men ought to know that from nothing else but thence [from the brain] come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear, and know what are foul and hat are fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet, and what unsavory… And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us…

Hippocrates

We see evolutionary comparisons of the prefrontal cortex of various mammals, from rats to humans. As Dr Silverstein puts it “[our brains] hitch a ride on blood oxygenation”. Neurology and psychology are the fields by which we learn about our subjective brain experiences.

Tonotopic mapping in the brain, showing sound frequencies and their physical locations in neural tissue

[JB comment – this is fascinating; I had no idea that pitch perception was related to specific, and different, physical locations in the brain]

Dr Silverstein now identifies various locations in the brain that deal with music or music-related neural processing, using the following image:

We learn that music instrumental learning actually changes the brain, enhancing certain locations, and cites the example of violin and keyboard players, who acquire sophisticated digital dexterity.

Now, we look at the subcortical responses to consonant and dissonant music effects, with images of brain scans. Some of these effects are the same across cultures, and some of different [suggesting to me, as many music teachers know intuitively, that in music there are some things that make us all the same, and others still that are learned experience]. Emotional areas of the brain are selectively activated by music, and different areas are activated by different kinds of music. “The more we know about the biology, the more we can know about targeting music therapy”. Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow (the subjective experience of being ‘in the zone’ reported by many creators, including musicians) is cited.

[A quote by Plato flies past at speed. It’s too good not to share here.]

I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning

Plato

Musician brains vs non-musician brain scans are compared. Dr Silverstein states that musicians who hear complex harmonies have different cognitive responses from non-musicians. Both groups may appreciate the sound, but each processes it differently.

Now, to disorders. We learn about sensory amusia, stroke recovery and musical hallucinations. Stroke recovery does not repair the brain where there is physical damage, but there is evidence that it helps substantially with rehabilitation. The following academic paper is cited (Augustus et al, 2015).

Next, we look at physiology – how music affects our bodies:

Dr Silverstein concludes by saying that there’s a core biology that underpins all music therapy, and the more that we understand the biology, the more we can understand the effects and benefits of music on health.

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