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The perfect melody: A closer look at the neurological effects of music

While music is known to be a vivid treat to the ears, neurological studies show that the brain also gets a taste of its benefits—maybe even in life-saving ways.

Ubiquitous and accessible by anyone, music brings volumes of color to the world. While it is widely known that it can bring emotional support, the physical effects of music are still unfamiliar to many. Whether through listening to music or playing musical instruments, the brain reacts to music in extraordinary ways—some that may even be life-saving.

Fireworks in your head

Dr. Kiminobu Sugaya, a neuroscience professor at the University of Central Florida, articulates that one of the most notable differences between the brain of a musician and a non-musician is exhibited in the temporal lobe. This region of the brain is responsible for interpreting sounds and recognizing language using language centers.

Sugaya explains that the thickness of the temporal lobe decreases over time, causing people to forget words as they age. For musicians, however, the nerve connections in this lobe become thicker due to its extensive use in their craft, preserving its thickness and lessening  such forgetfulness through time.

Dr. Rey Roa, a musician and cognitive neuroscience lecturer, says a similar distinction is observed in the corpus callosum—the bundle of axons connecting the brain’s left and right hemispheres. He highlights that of all human activities, “the only [one] that can trigger multiple portions of both the left and right hemispheres of the brain all at once is…listening to music or playing an instrument.” As such, the entire brain gets stimulated when introduced to music, strengthening the link between both hemispheres and thickening the corpus callosum. 

Since both sides of the brain are activated when listening to music, Roa illustrates what the organ looks like when imaged by a functional magnetic resonance imaging device, “It really is like looking at fireworks in your brain, lighting up altogether simultaneously as both cerebral hemispheres…process the sound.” But while the fireworks lit by listening to music are described as “backyard fireworks,” those induced by playing music are much more grand, similar to what one may see during New Year’s Day. 

A drug like no other

With the vast amount of brain activity triggered by music, neuroscientists posit that it can even benefit individuals who suffer from neurological diseases. Dr. David Silbersweig, the chairman of psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, discusses that even when a patient has aphasia—a disorder that damages one’s ability to communicate—the “tonality of high and low notes in melodies” can evoke certain memory systems of the brain. As a result, they can recall and sing songs that they were familiar with before becoming ill.

Moreover, for patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, musical ability is remarkably one of the last traits they lose. Silbersweig states that this is because musical ability is stored in parts of the brain unaffected by the disease. Sugaya notes the cerebellum—a brain structure involved in the movement of the hands and feet—as an example, elaborating that it allows musicians’ hands to always remember how to play, similar to how one never forgets how to ride a bike. 

The neurological benefits of music are also observed in patients with Parkinson’s disease who suffer from the loss of “substantia nigra dopaminergic neurons”—nerve cells that tell the body that it has a reason to move. Sugaya explains that music can function similarly to these neurons, aiding the body in movement. Silbersweig remarks, “if you play them a march with that rhythm, then that feeling can get them walking.” Although these effects are exceptional, Sugaya emphasizes that they are merely a temporary cure.

Enhancer of life

Roa states that the stimulation of all parts of the brain results in “higher three-dimensional cognitive and intellectual authority than the people who are not exposed to music.” As a musician, he shares that this is exemplified by his ability to memorize both musical passages and general knowledge. 

Guitar and alto saxophone player Jorge Dungao (II, BS-ADV) experiences similar cognitive advantages and explains that he can retain a lot of information for long periods of time. Additionally, he adds that playing music also allows him to increase his attention span and mental alertness, which benefits him both in his academics and recreational activities. “[Playing music] sharpens my mind together with the eyes and ears,” Dungao beams.

These cognitive effects have also vastly manifested in the life of German de Ramos Jr., the resident conductor of De La Salle University’s Lasallian Youth Orchestra. He expresses that being a musician has made his mind feel more active, thus invoking great creativity in him. “I can easily think of better ideas…like in musical arranging of pieces; I can easily finish an arrangement in no time,” he says.

Open the door to music

The role of music varies in the lives of each person depending on their cultures, experiences, and situations. Curiously, these differences are also what make the art universally treasured. Though music appeals to everyone uniquely, an ultimate shared effect is witnessed: a better quality of life.

The pages of what music can bring to this world are still being written. Blending it in one’s life rewards them with a multitude of benefits, emotionally and physically. It is never too late to pick up an instrument or reunite with one that was put away for years to feed the brain and unlock more of its astonishing capabilities.

By Anceline Rhys Imson

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