Music and the Brain

What is the secret of music's strange power? Seeking an answer, scientists are piecing together a picture of what happens in the brains of listeners and musicians

By Norman M. Weinberger

Why is music--universally beloved and uniquely powerful in its ability to wring emotions--so pervasive and important to us? 

  • Music has been ubiquitous in human societies throughout the world since the dawn of culture. Appreciation for music appears to be innate; infants as young as two months will turn toward pleasant sounds.

  • Many different regions of the brain respond to the perceptual and emotional aspects o f music, and the brain alters itself to react more strongly to musical sounds that become important to an individual.

Scientists who study how music is processed in the brain are laying the groundwork to understand the underlying reasons for music's power and importance to humans. 

Music surrounds us–and we wouldn't have it any other way. An exhilarating orchestral crescendo can bring tears to our eyes and send shivers down our spines. Background swells add emotive punch to movies and TV shows. Organists at ballgames bring us together, cheering, to our feet. Parents croon soothingly to infants.

And our fondness has deep roots: we have been making music since the dawn of culture. More than 30,000 years ago early humans were already playing bone flutes, percussive instruments and jaw harps--and all known societies throughout the world have had music. Indeed, our appreciation appears to be innate. Infants as young as two months will turn toward consonant, or pleasant, sounds and away from dissonant ones. And when a symphony's denouement gives delicious chills, the same kinds of pleasure centers of the brain light up as they do when eating chocolate, having sex or taking cocaine.

 Therein lies an intriguing biological mystery: Why is music--universally beloved and uniquely powerful in its ability to wring emotions--so pervasive and important to us? Could its emergence have enhanced human survival somehow, such as by aiding courtship, as Geoffrey F. Miller of the University of New Mexico has proposed? Or did it originally help us by promoting social cohesion in groups that had grown too large for grooming, as suggested by Robin M. Dunbar of the University of Liverpool? On the other hand, to use the words of Harvard University's Steven Pinker, is music just "auditory cheesecake"--a happy accident of evolution that happens to tickle the brain's fancy? 

Neuroscientists don't yet have the ultimate answers. But in recent years we have begun to gain a firmer understanding of where and how music is processed in the brain, which should lay a foundation for answering evolutionary questions. Collectively, studies of patients with brain injuries and imaging of healthy individuals have unexpectedly uncovered no specialized brain "center" for music. Rather music engages many areas distributed throughout the brain, including those that are normally involved in other kinds of cognition. The active areas vary with the person's individual experiences and musical training. The ear has the fewest sensory cells of any sensory organ--3,500 inner hair cells occupy the ear versus 100 million photoreceptors in the eye. Yet our mental response to music is remarkably adaptable; even a little study can "retune" the way the brain handles musical inputs. 

Inner Songs
Until the advent of modern imaging techniques, scientists gleaned insights about the brain's inner musical workings mainly by studying patients--including famous composers--who had experienced brain deficits as a result of injury, stroke or other ailments. For example, in 1933 French composer Maurice Ravel began to exhibit symptoms of what might have been focal cerebral degeneration, a disorder in which discrete areas of brain tissue atrophy. His conceptual abilities remained intact--he could still hear and remember his old compositions and play scales. But he could not write music. Speaking of his proposed opera Jeanne d'Arc, Ravel confided to a friend, "...this opera is here, in my head. I hear it, but I will never write it. It's over. I can no longer write my music." Ravel died four years later, following an unsuccessful neurosurgical procedure. The case lent credence to the idea that the brain might not have a specific center for music.

The experience of another composer additionally suggested that music and speech were processed independently. After suffering a stroke in 1953, Vissarion Shebalin, a Russian composer, could no longer talk or understand speech, yet he retained the ability to write music until his death 10 years later. Thus, the supposition of independent processing appears to be true, although more recent work has yielded a more nuanced understanding, relating to two of the features that music and language share: both are a means of communication, and each has a syntax, a set of rules that govern the proper combination of elements (notes and words, respectively). According to Aniruddh D. Patel of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, imaging findings suggest that a region in the frontal lobe enables proper construction of the syntax of both music and language, whereas other parts of the brain handle related aspects of language and music processing.


Imaging studies have also given us a fairly fine-grained picture of the brain's responses to music. These results make the most sense when placed in the context of how the ear conveys sounds in general to the brain. Like other sensory systems, the one for hearing is arranged hierarchically, consisting of a string of neural processing stations from the ear to the highest level, the auditory cortex. The processing of sounds, such as musical tones, begins with the inner ear (cochlea), which sorts complex sounds produced by, say, a violin, into their constituent elementary frequencies. The cochlea then transmits this information along separately tuned fibers of the auditory nerve as trains of neural discharges. Eventually these trains reach the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe. Different cells in the auditory system of the brain respond best to certain frequencies; neighboring cells have overlapping tuning curves so that there are no gaps. Indeed, because neighboring cells are tuned to similar frequencies, the auditory cortex forms a "frequency map" across its surface.

The response to music per se, though, is more complicated. Music consists of a sequence of tones, and perception of it depends on grasping the relationships between sounds. Many areas of the brain are involved in processing the various components of music. Consider tone, which encompasses both the frequencies and loudness of a sound. At one time, investigators suspected that cells tuned to a specific frequency always responded the same way when that frequency was detected.

But in the late 1980s Thomas M. McKenna and I, working in my laboratory at the University of California at Irvine, raised doubts about that notion when we studied contour, which is the pattern of rising and falling pitches that is the basis for all melodies. We constructed melodies consisting of different contours using the same five tones and then recorded the responses of single neurons in the auditory cortices of cats. We found that cell responses (the number of discharges) varied with the contour. Responses depended on the location of a given tone within a melody; cells may fire more vigorously when that tone is preceded by other tones rather than when it is the first. Moreover, cells react differently to the same tone when it is part of an ascending contour (low to high tones) than when it is part of a descending or more complex one. These findings show that the pattern of a melody matters: processing in the auditory system is not like the simple relaying of sound in a telephone or stereo system.

Although most research has focused on melody, rhythm (the relative lengths and spacing of notes), harmony (the relation of two or more simultaneous tones) and timbre (the characteristic difference in sound between two instruments playing the same tone) are also of interest. Studies of rhythm have concluded that one hemisphere is more involved, although they disagree on which hemisphere. The problem is that different tasks and even different rhythmic stimuli can demand different processing capacities. For example, the left temporal lobe seems to process briefer stimuli than the right temporal lobe and so would be more involved when the listener is trying to discern rhythm while hearing briefer musical sounds.

The situation is clearer for harmony. Imaging studies of the cerebral cortex find greater activation in the auditory regions of the right temporal lobe when subjects are focusing on aspects of harmony. Timbre also has been "assigned" a right temporal lobe preference. Patients whose temporal lobe has been removed (such as to eliminate seizures) show deficits in discriminating timbre if tissue from the right, but not the left, hemisphere is excised. In addition, the right temporal lobe becomes active in normal subjects when they discriminate between different timbres.

Brain responses also depend on the experiences and training of the listener. Even a little training can quickly alter the brain's reactions. For instance, until about 10 years ago, scientists believed that tuning was "fixed" for each cell in the auditory cortex. Our studies on contour, however, made us suspect that cell tuning might be altered during learning so that certain cells become extra sensitive to sounds that attract attention and are stored in memory.

Learning retunes the brain, so that more cells respond best to behaviorally important sounds.

To find out, Jon S. Bakin, Jean-Marc Edeline and I conducted a series of experiments during the 1990s in which we asked whether the basic organization of the auditory cortex changes when a subject learns that a certain tone is somehow important. Our group first presented guinea pigs with many different tones and recorded the responses of various cells in the auditory cortex to determine which tones produced the greatest responses. Next, we taught the subjects that a specific, nonpreferred tone was important by making it a signal for a mild foot shock. The guinea pigs learned this association within a few minutes. We then determined the cells' responses again, immediately after the training and at various times up to two months later. The neurons' tuning preferences had shifted from their original frequencies to that of the signal tone. Thus, learning retunes the brain so that more cells respond best to behaviorally important sounds. This cellular adjustment process extends across the cortex, "editing" the frequency map so that a greater area of the cortex processes important tones. One can tell which frequencies are important to an animal simply by determining the frequency organization of its auditory cortex.

The retuning was remarkably durable: it became stronger over time without additional training and lasted for months. These findings initiated a growing body of research indicating that one way the brain stores the learned importance of a stimulus is by devoting more brain cells to the processing of that stimulus. Although it is not possible to record from single neurons in humans during learning, brain-imaging studies can detect changes in the average magnitude of responses of thousands of cells in various parts of the cortex. In 1998 Ray Dolan and his colleagues at University College London trained human subjects in a similar type of task by teaching them that a particular tone was significant. The group found that learning produces the same type of tuning shifts seen in animals. The long-term effects of learning by retuning may help explain why we can quickly recognize a familiar melody in a noisy room and also why people suffering memory loss from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's can still recall music that they learned in the past.


Even when incoming sound is absent, we all can "listen" by recalling a piece of music. Think of any piece you know and "play" it in your head. Where in the brain is this music playing? In 1999 Andrea R. Halpern of Bucknell University and Robert J. Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University conducted a study in which they scanned the brains of nonmusicians who either listened to music or imagined hearing the same piece of music. Many of the same areas in the temporal lobes that were involved in listening to the melodies were also activated when those melodies were merely imagined.

Well-Developed Brains
Studies of musicians have extended many of the findings noted above, dramatically confirming the brain's ability to revise its wiring in support of musical activities. Just as some training increases the number of cells that respond to a sound when it becomes important, prolonged learning produces more marked responses and physical changes in the brain. Musicians, who usually practice many hours a day for years, show such effects--their responses to music differ from those of nonmusicians; they also exhibit hyperdevelopment of certain areas in their brains.

Christo Pantev, then at the University of Münster in Germany, led one such study in 1998. He found that when musicians listen to a piano playing, about 25 percent more of their left-hemisphere auditory regions respond than do so in nonmusicians. This effect is specific to musical tones and does not occur with similar but nonmusical sounds. Moreover, the authors found that this expansion of response area is greater the younger the age at which lessons began. Studies of children suggest that early musical experience may facilitate development. In 2004 Antoine Shahin, Larry E. Roberts and Laurel J. Trainor of McMaster University in Ontario recorded brain responses to piano, violin and pure tones in four- and five-year-old children. Youngsters who had received greater exposure to music in their homes showed enhanced brain auditory activity, comparable to that of unexposed kids about three years older.


Musicians may display greater responses to sounds, in part because their auditory cortex is more extensive. Peter Schneider and his co-workers at the University of Heidelberg in Germany reported in 2002 that the volume of this cortex in musicians was 130 percent larger. The percentages of volume increase were linked to levels of musical training, suggesting that learning music proportionally increases the number of neurons that process it.

In addition, musicians' brains devote more area toward motor control of the fingers used to play an instrument. In 1995 Thomas Elbert of the University of Konstanz in Germany and his colleagues reported that the brain regions that receive sensory inputs from the second to fifth (index to pinkie) fingers of the left hand were significantly larger in violinists; these are precisely the fingers used to make rapid and complex movements in violin playing. In contrast, they observed no enlargement of the areas of the cortex that handle inputs from the right hand, which controls the bow and requires no special finger movements. Nonmusicians do not exhibit these differences. Further, Pantev, now at the Rotman Research Institute at the University of Toronto, reported in 2001 that the brains of professional trumpet players react in such an intensified manner only to the sound of a trumpet--not, for example, to that of a violin.


Musicians also must develop greater ability to use both hands, particularly for keyboard playing. Thus, one might expect that this increased coordination between the motor regions of the two hemispheres has an anatomical substrate. That seems to be the case. The anterior corpus callosum, which contains the band of fibers that interconnects the two motor areas, is larger in musicians than in nonmusicians. Again, the extent of increase is greater the earlier the music lessons began. Other studies suggest that the actual size of the motor cortex, as well as that of the cerebellum--a region at the back of the brain involved in motor coordination--is greater in musicians.


Ode to Joy--or Sorrow
beyond examining how the brain processes the auditory aspects of music, investigators are exploring how it evokes strong emotional reactions. Pioneering work in 1991 by John A. Sloboda of Keele University in England revealed that more than 80 percent of sampled adults reported physical responses to music, including thrills, laughter or tears. In a 1995 study by Jaak Panksepp of Bowling Green State University, 70 percent of several hundred young men and woman polled said that they enjoyed music "because it elicits emotions and feelings." Underscoring those surveys was the result of a 1997 study by Carol L. Krumhansl of Cornell University. She and her co-workers recorded heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and other physiological measures during the presentation of various pieces that were considered to express happiness, sadness, fear or tension. Each type of music elicited a different but consistent pattern of physiological change across subjects.

Until recently, scientists knew little about the brain mechanisms involved. One clue, though, comes from a woman known as I. R. (initials are used to maintain privacy), who suffered bilateral damage to her temporal lobes, including auditory cortical regions. Her intelligence and general memory are normal, and she has no language difficulties. Yet she can make no sense of nor recognize any music, whether it is a previously known piece or a new piece that she has heard repeatedly. She cannot distinguish between two melodies no matter how different they are. Nevertheless, she has normal emotional reactions to different types of music; her ability to identify an emotion with a particular musical selection is completely normal! From this case we learn that the temporal lobe is needed to comprehend melody but not to produce an emotional reaction, which is both subcortical and involves aspects of the frontal lobes.

An imaging experiment in 1999 [not 2001], see[Blood, A.J., Zatorre, R.J., Bermudez, P., and Evans, A.C. (1999) Emotional responses to pleasant and unpleasant music correlate with activity in paralimbic brain regions. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 382-387] by Anne Blood and Zatorre of McGill sought to better specify the brain regions involved in emotional reactions to music. This study used mild emotional stimuli, those associated with people's reactions to musical consonance versus dissonance. Consonant musical intervals are generally those for which a simple ratio of frequencies exists between two tones. An example is middle C (about 260 hertz, or Hz) and middle G (about 390 Hz). Their ratio is 2:3, forming a pleasant-sounding "perfect fifth" interval when they are played simultaneously. In contrast, middle C and C sharp (about 277 Hz) have a "complex" ratio of about 8:9 and are considered unpleasant, having a "rough" sound.

What are the underlying brain mechanisms of that experience? PET (positron emission tomography) imaging conducted while subjects listened to consonant or dissonant chords showed that different localized brain regions were involved in the emotional reactions. Consonant chords activated the orbitofrontal area (part of the reward system) of the right hemisphere and also part of an area below the corpus callosum. In contrast, dissonant chords activated the right parahippocampal gyrus. Thus, at least two systems, each dealing with a different type of emotion, are at work when the brain processes emotions related to music. How the different patterns of activity in the auditory system might be specifically linked to these differentially reactive regions of the hemispheres remains to be discovered.


In the same year, Blood and Zatorre added a further clue to how music evokes pleasure. When they scanned the brains of musicians who had chills of euphoria when listening to music, they found that music activated some of the same reward systems that are stimulated by food, sex and addictive drugs.

Overall, findings to date indicate that music has a biological basis and that the brain has a functional organization for music. It seems fairly clear, even at this early stage of inquiry, that many brain regions participate in specific aspects of music processing, whether supporting perception (such as apprehending a melody) or evoking emotional reactions. Musicians appear to have additional specializations, particularly hyperdevelopment of some brain structures. These effects demonstrate that learning retunes the brain, increasing both the responses of individual cells and the number of cells that react strongly to sounds that become important to an individual. As research on music and the brain continues, we can anticipate a greater understanding not only about music and its reasons for existence but also about how multifaceted it really is.

NORMAN M. WEINBERGER, who received his Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Case Western Reserve University, works in the department of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, Irvine. He is a founder of U.C.I.'s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and of MuSICA (Music and Science Information Computer Archive). A pioneer in the field of learning and memory in the auditory system, Weinberger is on the editorial board of Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and Music Perception
The Origins of Music. Edited by Nils L. Wallin, Björn Merker and Steven Brown. MIT Press, 1999.
The Psychology of Music. Second edition. Edited by Diana Deutsch. Academic Press, 1999.
Music and Emotion: Theory and Research. Edited by Patrik N. Juslin and John A. Sloboda. Oxford University Press, 2001.
The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music. Edited by Isabelle Peretz and Robert J. Zatorre. Oxford University Press, 2003.


Selected publications from the last 20 years, primarily related to

auditory processing:




Here are the 2001-2004 papers

Zatorre, R.J. (2001) Do you see what I'm saying?  Interactions between auditory and visual cortices in cochlear implant users.  Neuron, 31, 13-14.
Bermudez, P. & Zatorre, R.J. (2001) Sexual dimorphism in the corpus callosum: methodological considerations in MRI morphometry.  NeuroImage, 13, 1121-1130. Supplementary material

Klein, D., Zatorre, R.J., Milner, B. & Zhao, V. (2001) A Cross-Linguistic PET Study of Tone Perception in Mandarin Chinese and English Speakers.     NeuroImage, 13, 646-653.

Peretz, I., Blood, A.J., Penhune, V. & Zatorre, R. (2001) Cortical deafness to dissonance.  Brain, 124, 928-940.
Zatorre, R.J. & Belin, P. (2001) Spectral and temporal processing in human auditory cortex.  Cerebral Cortex, 11, 946-953.
Supplementary material

Blood, A.J. & Zatorre, R.J. (2001) Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated with reward and emotion.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98, 11818-11823. Supplementary material

Zatorre, R.J. (2001) The Biological Foundations of Music. Ed. Robert J. Zatorre & Isabelle Peretz. Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 930.
Peretz, I., Ayotte, J., Zatorre, R.J., Mehler, J., Ahad, P., Penhune, V.B. & Jutras, B. (2002) Congenital amusia: a disorder of fine-grained pitch discrimination.  Neuron, 33, 185-191.
Zatorre, R.J., Belin, P. & Penhune, V.B. (2002) Structure and function of auditory cortex: music and speech.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6, 37-46.
Belin, P., Zatorre, R.J. & Ahad, P. (2002) Human temporal-lobe response to vocal sounds.  Cognitive Brain Research, 13, 17-26.
Samson, S., Zatorre, R.J. & Ramsay, J.O. (2002) Deficits of musical timbre perception after unilateral temporal-lobe lesion revealed with multidimensional scaling.  Brain, 125, 511-523.
Warrier, C.M. & Zatorre, R.J. (2002) Influence of tonal context and timbral variation on perception of pitch.  Perception and Psychophysics, 64, 198-207.
Zatorre, R.J., Bouffard, M., Ahad, P. and Belin, P. (2002) Where is 'where' in the human auditory cortex?.  Nature Neuroscience, 5, 905-909.
Supplementary material

Golestani, N., Paus, T., and Zatorre, R.J. (2002) Anatomical correlates of learning novel speech sounds. Neuron, 35, 997-1010.
Supplementary material

Zatorre, R.J. (2003) Absolute pitch: a model for understanding the influence of genes and development on neural and cognitive function. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 692-695. Supplementary material

Belin, P. & Zatorre, R.J. (2003) Adaptation to speaker’s voice in right anterior temporal lobe. Neuroreport, 2105-2109.

Penhune, V.B., Cismaru, R., Dorsaint-Pierre, R., Petitto, L. & Zatorre, R.J. (2003) The morphometry of auditory cortex in the congenitally deaf measured using MRI. NeuroImage, 1215-1225.

Golestani, N. & Zatorre, R.J. (2004) Learning new sounds of speech: reallocation of neural substrates. NeuroImage, 21, 494-506.

Zatorre, R.J., Bouffard, M. & Belin, P. (2004) Sensitivity to auditory object features in human temporal neocortex, The Journal of Neuroscience, 24, 3637-3642.Note: this pdf incorporates a correction to figure 4 which was published on 26 May 2004 Supplementary material

Warrier, C.M. & Zatorre, R.J (2004) Right temporal cortex is critical for utilization of melodic contextual cues in a pitch constancy task. Brain.
Supplementary material

Halpern, A.R., Zatorre, R.J., Bouffard, M. & Johnson, J.A. (2004) Behavioral and neural correlates of perceived and imagined timbre. Neuropsychologia, 42, 1281-1292. Supplementary material

Gougoux, F., Lepore, F., Lassonde, M., Voss, P., Zatorre, R.J. & Belin, P. (2004) Pitch discrimination in the early blind. Nature, 430, 309.

And something more from :

Music and the Brain

Sing Whenever/Wherever You Can

Singing in the shower may be healing to your brain. Song has long been known to have healing qualities. You can often tell that a person is in a good mood if they are humming or singing. Song is a true joy of life, no matter how you sing. I have seen how the temperaments of my girls change when we sing together. They could be having a terrible day, but when they start singing, often they forget their cares and feel better.

Song is often associated with spiritual experience. When I was in college, I attended Calvary Chapel, a large church in Southern California. The music was magical. Listening to the choir was not just a pleasant listening experience, it was a wondrous experience that resonated through every cell in my body. The music uplifted both the soul and mood of the congregation. The pastor said the music was "Blessed by God Himself." Several of my friends were choir members. I often saw them become transformed when they started to sing. Shy people would become more extroverted, more alive. People in the congregation became more involved in the service during congregational singing. The church community glistened with the contagious joy of the music.

Preschool and kindergarten teachers have known for a long time that children learn best through songs. They remember the material easier and it is easier to keep them engaged in the activity. So why do we stop singing in the second or third grade? Perhaps we should continue the singing into later grades.

Interestingly, when I was in basic training in the military, we often sang when we marched. I still have those songs in my head. When we sang as a group, morale went up, and the tasks that we were doing didn't seem quite as bad (like 20-mile road marches).

Sing whenever and wherever you can. You may have to sing softly if your voice is like mine (my 16-year-old daughter is often embarrassed when I sing in church). It will have a

healing effect on your temporal lobes, and probably your limbic system as well.

Use Humming and Toning to Tune Up Your Brain

In the Mozart Effect, Don Campbell, founder of the Institute of Music, Health and Education, lists the benefits of using your voice to enhance mood and memory. He says that all forms of vocalization, including singing, chanting, yodeling, humming, reciting poetry, or simply talk can be therapeutic. "Nothing rivals toning," he concludes. The word 'toning' goes back to the fourteenth century and means to make sounds with elongated vowels for extended periods of time. Ah, ou (such as in soup), ee, ay, oh and om are examples of toning sounds. Campbell writes that when people tone on a regular basis for 5 minutes a day, "I have witnessed thousands of people relax into their voices, become more centered in their bodies, release fear and other emotions, and free themselves from physical pain…I have seen many people apply toning in practical ways, from relaxing before a dreaded test to eliminating symptoms of tinnitus or migraine headaches…Toning has been effective in relieving insomnia and other sleep disorders….Toning balances brain waves, deepens the breath, reduces the heart rate and imparts a general sense of well-being." Campbell reports that in his experience certain sounds tend to have certain effects on the body and emotions:

Ahhh - immediately evokes a relaxation response,

Ee or Ay - is the most stimulating of vowel sounds, helps with concentration, releasing pain and anger,

Oh or Om - considered the richest of sounds, can warm skin temperature and relax muscle tension. Try toning for 5 minutes a day for 2 weeks to see if it will help you.

In a similar way, humming can also make a positive difference in mood and memory. Mozart hummed as he composed. Children hum when they are happy. Adults often hum tunes that go through their minds, lifting their spirits and tuning their mind. Consciously focus on humming during the day. As the sound activates your brain, you will feel more alive and your brain will feel more tuned in to the moment.

Listen to Classical Music

In a similar way, listen to a lot of great music. Music, from country to jazz, from rock to classical, is one of the true joys of life. Music has many healing properties. Listening to music can activate and stimulate the temporal lobes and bring peace or excitement to your mind.

Music therapy has been a part of psychiatric treatments for centuries. When certain music is played it has a calming effect on patients. Fast-paced, upbeat music has a stimulating effect on depressed patients.

In highly publicized work, researchers at the University of California at Irvine (UCI) demonstrated that listening to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos (K.448) enhanced visual spatial learning skills. Frances H. Rauscher, PhD and her colleagues conducted a study with 36 undergraduates from the department of psychology who scored 8 to 9 points higher on the spatial IQ test (part of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence scale) after listening to 10 minutes of Mozart. Gordon Shaw, one of the researchers, suggested Mozart's music may be able to warm up the brain, "We suspect that complex music facilitates certain complex neuronal patterns involved in high brain activities like math and chess. By contrast, simple and repetitive music could have the opposite effect." In a follow up study the researchers tested spatial skill by projecting 16 abstract figures similar to folded pieces of paper on an overhead screen for one minute each. The test looked at ability of participants to tell how the items would look unfolded. Over a 5-day period, one group listened to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos, another to silence, and a third to mixed sounds, including music by Philip Glass, an audiotaped story, and a dance piece. The researchers reported that all three groups improved their scores from day one to day two, but the group that listened to Mozart improved their pattern recognition scores 62% compared to 14% for the silence group and 11% for the mixed group. On subsequent days the Mozart group achieved yet higher scores but the other groups did not show continued improvement. The researchers proposed that Mozart's music strengthened the creative right-brain processing center associated with spatial reasoning. "Listening to music," they concluded, "acts as an exercise for facilitating symmetry operations associated with higher brain function. Don Campbell gives a nice summary of this work in The Mozart Effect, along with many other examples of music enhancing learning and healing the body. Campbell writes that in his experience Mozart's violin concertos, especially numbers 3 and 4 produce even stronger positive effects on learning.

In the context of the temporal lobes this research makes perfect sense. The temporal lobes are involved in processing music and memory. Certain types of music may activate the temporal lobes and help them learn, process and remember information more efficiently. It is likely that certain types of music open new pathways into the mind.

Certain music can also be very destructive. It is no coincidence that the majority of teenagers who end up being sent to residential treatment facilities or group homes listen to more heavy metal music than other teens. Music that is filled with lyrics of hate and despair encourage those same mind states in developing teens. What your children listen to may hurt them. Teach them to love classical music when they are young.

Music is influential from a very early age. Dr. Thomas Verny in his book The Secret Life of the Unborn Child cites scientific experiments showing that fetuses preferred Mozart and Vivaldi to other composers in early as well as later stages of pregnancy. He reported that fetal heart rates steadied and kicking lessened, while other music, especially rock, "drove most fetuses to distraction," and they "kicked violently" when it was played to their mothers.

Classical music and most beautiful soothing, stimulating music can make a positive difference in your brain.

Learn a Musical Instrument

In a follow up study by Rauscher and Shaw at UCI 34 preschoolers were given piano keyboard training. After 6 months, all the children could play basic melodies from Mozart and Beethoven. They exhibited significant increases in visual spatial skill (up to 36% improvement compared to other preschoolers who received computer lessons or other types of stimulation. Campbell reports on the following studies: The College Entrance Examination Board in 1996 reported that students with experience in musical performance scored 51 points higher on the verbal part of the SAT and 39 points high on the math section than the national average. In a study of approximately 7,500 students at a university music and music major had the highest reading scores of any students on campus. Learning a musical instrument, at any age can be helpful to develop and activate temporal lobe neurons. As the temporal lobes are activated in an effective way they are more likely to have improved function overall.

Move In Rhythms

The temporal lobes are involved with processing and producing rhythms. Many Americans never learn about the concept of rhythm and how important it can be to healing and health. Chanting, dancing and other forms of rhythmic movement can be healing.

Chanting is commonly used in eastern religions and orthodox western religions as a way to focus and open one's mind. Chanting has a special rhythm that produces an almost trance-like quality, bringing peace and tranquility to the person. In these states, the mind is more open to new experiences and learning.

Even for people with two left feet like myself, dancing and body movement can be very therapeutic. When I worked on a psychiatric hospital unit, the patients had dance therapy three to four times a week. I often found that my patients were more open and more insightful in psychotherapy after a dance therapy session. Dancing, like song and music, has the ability to change a person's mood and give them experiences they can treasure throughout the day, week, or even longer.

Look for opportunities to move in rhythms.

Mozart for Focus

In one controlled study, however, Mozart has been found helpful for ADD children. Rosalie Rebollo Pratt and colleagues studies 19 children, ages seven to seventeen, with ADD while playing recordings of Mozart during three times a week brain wave biofeedback sessions. 100 Masterpieces, Vol. 3: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the music used. It included the selections of Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, The Marriage of Figaro, Flute Concerto No. 2 in D, Don Giovanni and other concertos and sonatas. The group that listened to Mozart had reduced their theta brain wave activity (slow brain waves often excessive in ADD) in exact rhythm to the underlying beat of the music, and displayed better focus and mood control, diminished impulsivity and improved social skill. Among the subjects that improved, 70 % maintained that improvement six months after the end of the study without further training.

The music you listen to matters!

After she heard me lecture on music and the brain, my 18 year old daughter, Breanne, did a study with 12 of her friends for a psychology class. She timed them playing the game Memory while they listened to nothing, Mozart, rock, heavy metal, and rap music. She found that they did best when they listened to Mozart (even better than to listening to nothing at all), and worst when they listened to heavy metal and rap music. [ from  ]

For another point of view : What is really going on in our brains when we think?