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Eight New Things We’ve Learned About Music

It's right up there with food, sex and drugs when its comes to stirring up pleasure responses in our brains.

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Guy listening to music

Music works deep into our brains. Photo courtesy of Flickr user antonkawasaki

In one those strange twists of modern life, we were reminded last week of the power of music–at a hockey game.

It was at Boston’s TD Garden, two days after the explosions that contorted so many lives, and as singer Rene Rancourt began the Star Spangled Banner before the game between the hometown Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres, he noticed that many in the crowd were joining in. Rancourt got only as far as …”what so proudly we hailed” before he pulled the microphone away from his mouth and motioned to those in the stands to carry on. They did, in full voice, building to a stirring finish.

Yes, it would have been a powerful moment had those 17,000 people stood and cheered in unison. But they sang together, without restraint, and that moved us in a way we can’t fully comprehend.

Welcome to the pleasure center

Why is it that music can affect us in such profound ways? “Because it does” seems like a pretty good answer to me, but scientists aren’t that easy. They’ve been wrestling with this for a long time, yet it was not that long ago that two researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre, came up with an explanation, at least a physiological one.

Based on MRI scans, they found that when people listened to music they liked, the limbic and paralimbic regions of the brain became more active. They’re the areas linked to euphoric reward responses, the same ones that bring the dopamine rush associated with food, sex and drugs. (Right, so throw in rock and roll.)

Okay, but why? Why should a collection of sounds cause the brain to reward itself? That remains a bit of a mystery, but a favorite theory, proposed almost 60 years ago, posits that it’s about fulfilled expectations. Put simply, music sets up patterns that causes us to predict what will come next and when we’re right, we get a reward. Some have suggested this has its roots in primitive times when guessing wrong about animal sounds was a matter of life or death. What was needed was a quick emotional response to save our skin, rather than taking a time to think things through.

And so, the theory goes, our response to sound became a gut reaction.

And the beat goes on

The truth is we’re learning new things about music all the time. Here are eight studies published in just the past few months.

1) But can you dance to it?: Toronto researcher Valorie Salimpoor wanted to know if our strong emotional response to a song we like is due to the music itself or some personal attachment we have to it. So she had a group of people listen to 30-second samples of songs they’d never heard before, then asked them how much they’d be willing to pay for each track. And she did MRI scans of their brains while they listened. The result? When the nucleus accumbens region became active–it’s a part of the brain associated with pleasant surprises or what neuroscientists call “positive prediction errors”–they were more willing to spend money. In other words, if a song turned out better than they had expected, based on pattern recognition, they wanted more of it.

2) Drum solos not included: Two McGill University psychologists in Montreal say that soothing music can actually be more effective than Valium when it comes to relaxing people before surgery.

3) Unless their favorite song is by Metallica: And it helps even the tiniest of babies. A study at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York found that when parents turned their favorite songs into lullabies and sang or played them on an instrument, it reduced stress levels in the infants and stabilized their vital signs.

4) The ultimate mind meld: Back to brain scans. Stanford neuroscientist Daniel Abrams determined that when different people listened to the same piece of music–in this case a little known symphony–their brains reflected similar patterns of activity. And those similarities were observed not just in areas of the brain linked with sound processing, but also in regions responsible for attention, memory and movement.

5) You know you love “Gangnam Style”…Ooops, sorry about that: Yes, scientists are even doing research on earworms or as most of us know them, songs that get stuck in our heads. And the latest study found that contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s usually not awful songs that we can’t seem to get rid of. Most often, it’s songs we actually like, even if we don’t want to admit it. Researcher Ira Hyman also has suggestions for how to get rid of an earworm–you need to engage in a task that requires the auditory and verbal components of your working memory–say, reading a good book.

6) No language barrier here: Previous research has shown that people with a musical background are more likely to be able to learn a second language, and now a new study suggests that people who speak a language that’s tonal, such as Cantonese, may be better suited to learning music. Understanding Cantonese requires a person to master six different tones, each of which can change the meaning of words. On musical tests taken by non-musicians as part of the study, those who spoke Cantonese scored 20 percent higher than English-speaking participants who didn’t play music.

7) Some day you’ll thank me for this, kid: A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that musical training before the age of seven can have a major effect on brain development. Those who learned how to play chords at an early age tend to have stronger connections between the motor regions of their brains.

8) Say what?: So loud music may not ruin your hearing after all. At least that’s the conclusion of New South Wales scientist Gary Houseley, who says his research showed that loud music causes hearing to diminish for only about 12 hours. His study was able to demonstrate that when sound levels rise, the inner ear releases a hormone which reduces the amount of sound transmitted by the ear hair’s cells. That reduces our hearing sensitivity for a while, but it also keeps our ears from being permanently damaged.

Video bonus: Then there are the people who can improvise music. Researcher Charles Limb took a look inside their brains.

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