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Music Affects Many Areas of Brain


The Chinese philosopher Confucious was reported to have said, "Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without." Why and how music has such a powerful hold on us is the subject of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Author Daniel Levitin, who appeared on VOA's Talk to America, is an expert on the subject in more ways than one.

From Record Producer to Scientist

For 15 years Levitin worked as a sound engineer and record producer with major rock music acts like Carlos Santana, Steely Dan, Chris Isaak and Blue Oyster Cult. Today, armed with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, he heads the Levitin Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal.

"I had always been asking questions about why is it that Carlos Santana is able to play a solo that moves me so much when I'm sitting in the studio and somehow that gets translated to records and millions of people have the same experience," Levitin says. He decided to go to school to find the answers.

Levitin shares what he has learned in his book, This Is Your Brain on Music, in terms that non-musicians and non-scientists can understand, answering questions like, why is it when we hear music we often want to get up and dance, or at least tap our toes?

Music, Movement and Mood

"For reasons that aren't entirely understood yet, music is wired to the motor areas of the brain," Levitin says. That part, the motor cortex, is the same part of the brain that helps us move in a willful way, for example, to jog or type. "When music hits our eardrums," he says, "part of the signal flows up toward the motor cortex and creates a connection."

Levitin notes, "People use music as mood regulation," to motivate them to exercise or get out of bed in the morning. And "they might put Billie Holiday on in the evening to calm down."

Developing a Taste for Music

On the other hand, if you grew up in certain parts of India, you might prefer to listen to ragas to de-stress in the evening. "The music culture that you are raised in forms the foundation for the kind of music you can understand, like a language," Levitin says.

People's taste in music begins to develop as early as infancy, when the human brain is processing all of the new stimuli it is exposed to, including music. "The brain begins to learn the structures and forms of the music it is exposed to," he explains. "So if you hear American or European music based on Western scales as an infant, that's the music you are going to like, as opposed to Pakistani music or Indian music or Chinese opera."

Music and Learning

As for the impact music can have on the development of other areas of the brain, the so-called "Mozart Effect," Levitin says there is a relationship between learning in general and exposure to music at a young age. Playing music has a greater impact than merely listening. "Learning an instrument helps people to pay attention better to everything in their intellectual environment," he says. "The kind of focused attention that is required to make sense of music either as a listener or a performer turns out to carry over to other cognitive domains."

But some areas of the brain respond solely to music. For example, some people who lose the ability to speak due to trauma to the inferior frontal cortex in the left hemisphere of the brain can still sing and recognize music.

At the Levitin Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise researchers have been working with people with Williams Syndrome, a genetic abnormality that affects the brain. "They can't do very much that most people can do. They can't tie their shoes; they can't read; they can't tell time," Levitin says. "They are what you would call severely mentally handicapped, but they can play music just fine, so this suggests music has its own neuro-structures."

Levitin says just why the human brain is wired for music is still unclear. One argument is that music was a by-product of the development of speech. But Daniel Levitin believes music was not just an evolutionary accident. "I actually believe that music preceded speech and was an early form of emotional communication."

Audio report above includes music.