Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Music and Science on the Brain

Music has an indisputable ability to trigger powerful emotions. It is frequently associated with memories of the past, and hearing just a short clip of a song can often trigger feelings from deep within the subconscious. It is also used in various therapies, can add considerable depth to a movie or film clip, and can have a substantial effect on your mood, even the first time you hear a song. What is it about music that conjures up such feelings?

It is undeniable, yet largely inexplicable, that music can evoke emotions from your past, whether it conjures up memories from school, good times or lost loves. However, the mechanism within the brain that allows this to occur is relatively unknown. Traditionally, the fields of music and biology have not overlapped, and a deep understanding of the neurological effects of music still awaits us. One of the problems is that the emotional effect of music is very subjective – one song can be experienced in many different ways by many different people. Some may associate memories with the song, the environment in which it is played effects how people respond, and simply the personality and mood of the listener may make them predisposed to feel a certain way about certain pieces of music and musical styles. In summary, songs that affect some people, may not affect others – there is a cultural effect.

Notwithstanding this, a researcher at the University of New South Wales has worked out a few basic mathematical features of music that influence our mood.

“'Among other things,” said Dr Emery Schubert, “loudness, tempo and pitch have a measurable impact on people’s emotional response to music,'”

His study involved 66 volunteers who listened to four classical compositions and moved a mouse over a computer screen to indicate how they felt when they were listening to the songs. He found that arousal is associated with a composition’s loudness and to a lesser extent its tempo. Schubert stated that along with the idea that songs written in a major key are happy songs, and those in a minor key are sad songs, happiness is associated with a rising pitch and an increased number of instruments.

However, Schubert is aware that he has only highlighted a number of broad factors that contribute to music’s effect on our emotions.

”While we know that some musical parameters predict some emotions with a degree of certainty, musical features interact in complex ways, as do listener responses. Before we can compose musical emotions by numbers, we need to convert human experience and cultural knowledge variables into numbers, too. It will be some time before we can do this. What we've shown is that it is already possible to locate and quantify some of these emotions with some precision.”

Dissonance is another factor that is unpleasant to listeners and can create feelings of fear. It may also be intrinsic to music as infants as young as 4 months old show negative reactions. It has been found that varying degrees of dissonance causes increased activity in the paralimbic regions of the brain, which are associated with emotional processes.

Another recent experiment measured the brain activity while listeners were played music they chose that made them feel good and had emotional value for them. Activity was seen in the reward/motivation, emotion, and arousal areas of the brain. This result suggests a connection between the pleasure of music and the pleasures induced by food, sex, and drugs, which target these same areas.

Music can also effect hormone levels within the body, lowering levels of cortisol (associated with stress), and rising levels of melatonin (associated with sleep). This suggests music can help with relaxation. It also causes the release of endorphins, which help relieve pain.

Everyone has felt chills up their spine when listening to a piece of music. Emotions stimulate a region of the brain called the hypothalamus. Neurobiologist Jaak Panksepp found that people more often feel chills or goose bumps when listening to music when the music evokes a sad feeling or is compounded by a sad memory, as opposed to happy feelings or positive memories. He thinks this may be due to evolution – this response may be similar to those our ancestors felt when they heard the cry of a lost loved one bringing about a desire for close physical contact and keeping families together. It is known that songs mimicking the sounds of mourning and waling evoke feelings of sadness.

Cementing the fact that music has a powerful effect of the brain is a disorder called musicogenic epilepsy. People with this condition are mentally deficient, yet most are excellent musicians – some are even known as “musical savants” who have extraordinary musical talent. On the other hand, less than 1% of the population suffer from amusia, a condition that means that they can literally not recognise a melody, no matter how simple is it.

So however music works on us, it seems that it must have an important function, otherwise it would not have evolved. Perhaps an appreciation of music, like broad shoulders, may demonstrate fitness to a potential mate – singing or playing an instrument well requires dexterity and good memory. Or perhaps it is something we need to keep our brain stimulated with its complex patterns. Whatever its reason and however it works, music is fundamental to our society and something for us all to enjoy, even if we don’t all enjoy the same stuff.

Listen to this show here

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