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New Discoveries Explain the Powers of Music on the Human Brain

Jun 06, 2011

Extraordinary human engagement with music is a phenomenon that spans the globe. Can the universality of music be explained in terms of how it affects our brains?

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By Jessica Balik

Even though different people enjoy different sorts of music, the sheer engagement with music is universal; it transcends geographic, economic, educational and other cultural boundaries. But can this universality be explained in terms of how music affects our human brains? National Public Radio recently interviewed Elena Mannes and Ani Patel, who both study music and cognition, and they believe that part of music's power can indeed be explained in physiological and neurological terms.

music notes

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In fact, Mannes goes so far as to claim that music engages more parts of the brain than any other human activity. For example, she explains that, because music triggers parts of the brain associated with memory, music can help Alzheimer's patients. Moreover, music and language especially involve common areas of the brain, and therefore music can help people with neurological problems that impair language production. Mannes notes 'melodic intonation therapy' can help stroke patients recover their speaking abilities; additionally, Patel claims that music can help these same patients to regain control over muscles. Patel, meanwhile, believes that humans connect sound and movement to acquire language. Surely, we move our lips to imitate sounds. This same connection might help explain why - in contrast to other animals that do not speak - humans the world over are driven to move their bodies to musical beats.

music on the brain

Furthermore, both Mannes and Patel note that musical forms, or certain musical structures, produce specific physiological and emotional responses. For instance, listening to certain types of music can prompt a surge in dopamine levels. Since dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure, the connection to hearing music and increased dopamine might illuminate why music can be enjoyable for us. Patel notes that even autistic people, who might not verbally communicate their reactions to music, are nonetheless physiologically affected by it.

Patel authored the forward for a new book by Mannes, The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song. Her book can better educate us about music's universal power to affect, even to improve, our brains.

Want to find more ways to connect with music on the Web? Check out these top music blogs.

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