Music, How it Affects the Brain

My parents and I were captured one night in front of the television, entranced… the show was paid programming courtesy of the state of Texas. We did not switch channels, we barely moved, and if we spoke it was about the thing that captivated us… Music! Chris Botti, an American instrumentalist, had played a concert in Boston that incorporated guest artists such as fellow instrumentalist Yo-yo Ma as accompaniment and vocals provided by Sting former lead singer of the Police and others such as John Mayor, Josh Gordon, and Steven Tyler. This concert had been filmed and interwoven between chats with Chris Botti and his band in hopes to coax people to buy tickets for a concert of his in Texas.

During Chris Botti’s interviews, my mother asked questions as usual while my father proudly admitted that not only was he a follower of instrumental music but he had played the saxophone over ten odd years ago. I, on the other hand, was given a prime example of why my parents should go out of their way to purchase lessons for me. Lucia Micarelli, a classically trained violinist, only enhanced my argument. She played alongside Chris in Boston. They had performed with each other before, and out of tradition Chris would hug her after each performance, whispering in her ear the number of people in the audience he could see crying. Such musical responses are not rare but it altered my parents’ views of the violin from being a lengthy undertaking to an experience worthwhile.

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Culturally music is embedded into society as deep as language. As my parents and I were emotionally affected by music, living things are affected physically. Rhythm is also an important aspect of music to study when looking at responses to music. There are two responses to rhythm. These responses are hard to separate because they are related, and one of these responses cannot exist without the other: (1) The actual hearing of the rhythm and (2) the physical response to the rhythm. The level of musicianship of the performer and the listener as well as the manner in which a piece is performed affects the “experience” of music.

An experienced and accomplished musician might hear and feel a piece of music in a totally different way than a non-musician or beginner. This is why two accounts of the same piece of music can contradict themselves (O’Donnell). When I was younger educationally I was far below average; it wasn’t until the fourth grade that I reached progress…

close to a five year difference. Children, taught to play an instrument, are documented to have faster and better brain development. A study done in September of 2006 on the differences of mental development between children with musical-training and those without. This is thought to be one of the earliest documented experiments proving just that. The study showed that not only do the brains of musically-trained children respond to music in a different way to those of the untrained children, but also that the training improves their memory as well. After one year the musically trained children performed better in a memory test that is correlated with general intelligence skills such as literacy, verbal memory, visiospatial processing, mathematics and IQ.

(O’Donnell) Did I mention that I spent a summer with the Sylvain Learning Center after the third grade? Price-wise a rented trumpet and a few lessons would have a lower cost with a longer lasting effect; my parents spent around a thousand dollars for that premium tutoring. I remember mostly sitting at a desk with the front walled off from the others taking constant tests with instrumental in the background. Maybe Sylvain knew of music’s affects on the brain Mozart’s music and baroque music, with a 60 beats per minute beat pattern, activate the left and right brain. The information being studied activates the left brain while the music activates the right brain. So it might have been the simultaneous left and right brain action maximizes my learning and retention of information. Beyond the benefits music can have estranged side effects on living organisms.

Remember the “popular projects” in the science fair, how many of those involved plant growth and music? Many revealing scientific experiments, studies, and research projects have been performed to try and discover the extent of the power of music on living things. Up until 1970, most of the research done on music had to do with studying the effects of the music’s rhythm. It is common understanding today that slow music slows the heartbeat and the breathing rate as well as lowering blood pressure while faster music increases them. It wasn’t long before scientists wondered music’s effect on plants. In 1968 a college student, Dorthy Retallack, started researching, she took her focus off of the beat and put in studying the different sounds of music.

Retallack tested the effects of music on plant growth by using music styles including classical, jazz, pop, rock, acid rock, East Indian, and country. She found that the plants grew well for almost every type of music except rock and acid rock. Jazz, classical, and Ravi Shankar turned out to be the most helpful to the plants. However, the plants tested with the rock music withered and died. The acid rock music also had negative effects on the plant growth.

The reasoning for this is a much more complex study. An Australian physician and psychiatrist, Dr. John Diamond, found a direct link between muscle strength/weakness and music. He discovered that all of the muscles in the entire body go weak when subjected to the “stopped anapestic beat” of music from hard rock musicians, including Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Queen, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Bachman – Turner Overdrive, and The Band. Dr. Diamond found another effect of the anapestic beat.

He called it a “switching” of the brain. Dr. Diamond said this switching occurs when the actual symmetry between both of the cerebral hemispheres is destroyed causing alarm in the body along with lessened work performance, learning and behavior problems in children, and a “general malaise in adults.” in addition to irregular beats in rock music, shrill frequencies proves to also be harmful to the body (O’Donnell). Bob Larson, a Christian minister and former rock musician, remembers that in the 70’s teens would bring raw eggs to a rock concert and put them on the front of the stage. The eggs would be hard boiled by the music before the end of the concert and could be eaten.

Dr. Earl W. Flosdorf and Dr. Leslie A. Chambers showed that proteins in a liquid medium were coagulated when subjected to piercing high-pitched sounds.

So just imagine if a tree could rot from over exposure to shrill & in-regular beats and an egg can be cooked just imagine what sound can do to your body before plugging into your iPod. The solution to be seen has been recognized upon for the last few decades, artistic compromise can lower exposure to shrill tones and perhaps steady beats. Though the word in itself seems dangerous, a compromise is defined as two things: (1) it is widely viewed as a settlement of differences by arbitration or by consent reached by mutual concessions or in other words a deal. But also it is (2) finding a middle ground by settling between or blending qualities of two different things. The latter is closest to my meaning of artistic compromise. Blending genre is as innovative as creating a new one.

Music has it’s many genre’s because of this affect already, no new genres were created just a few musical compensations were made resulting in new and enlightened sound such as Neo-Soul, Vocal Jazz, and contemporary R which are all variations or inspired by Gospel, Jazz, or the many innovations of Motown records which set a standard for chart toping and genre bending. The same old song, “music is important”, but its meaning can hardly be contemplated if not through the core of the medium. Or rather speaking, don’t try to be a critic before you’ve picked up a brush. Musical theory is not just something you can glance at and understand it takes study and constant exposure, that “expose” can be applied in the most innovative way, by investing time and money into an instrument. Though the price can be daunting recalling the benefits are essential.

In 2006 an experiment was underway in hopes of measuring a notable difference in the brain development of young children influenced by music education. The Canadian-based researchers reached these conclusions after measuring changes in brain responses to sounds in children aged between four and six. Over the period of a year they took four measurements in two groups of children — those taking Suzuki music lessons and those taking no musical training outside school — and found developmental changes over periods as short as four months. While previous studies have shown that older children given music lessons had greater improvements in IQ scores than children given drama lessons, this is the first study to identify these effects in brain-based measurements in young children. Prof Trainor led the study with Dr. Takako Fujioka, a scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute.

He said: “That the children studying music for a year improved in musical listening skills more than children not studying music is perhaps not very surprising. On the other hand, it is very interesting that the children taking music lessons improved more over the year on general memory skills that are correlated with non-musical abilities such as literacy, verbal memory, visiospatial processing, mathematics and IQ than did the children not taking lessons. The finding of very rapid maturation of the N250m component to violin sounds in children taking music lessons fits with their large improvement on the memory test. It suggests that musical training is having an effect on how the brain gets wired for general cognitive functioning related to memory and attention” (Oxford University Press). In similar terms music seems to be one of many keys to the brain that continues to open new doors such as those of academia.

However benefits such as health and academics are not always motivation enough to enter onto unfamiliar soil. Before embarking on a journey it relaxes the traveler to know of those who’ve walked a similar path. These are a few men and women who have used the benefits of music to their advantage. The most Academy Award nominated actress, Meryl Streep, she is known through her roles in memorable films like Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice.

She learned to play the violin, by practicing 6 hours a day for 8 weeks, for her role in Music of the Heart (1999). Even though for Meryl violin was strictly business, she commonly uses music to get into character which in lay-man’s terms means to memorize and apply. Besides Streep another violinist in entertainment is the Grammys 2011 winner of the best new artist award, Esperanza Spalding an upcoming Jazz musician. She attributes her inspiration for pursuing a life in music to watching classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s performance on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when she was four. By the time Spalding was five, she had taught herself to play the violin and was playing with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. Even though she was quick to learn music she struggled in high school to the point where she dropped out at sixteen only to earn her GED in a collage environment not long after.

The same school took her on as a professor after her graduation. Another violinist who struggled in school was the once undermined Albert Einstein. His grade school teachers told his parents to take him out of school because he was “too stupid to learn” and it would be a waste of resources for the school to invest time and energy in his education. The school suggested that his parents get Albert an easy, manual labor job as soon as they could. His mother did not think that Albert was “stupid”. Instead of following the school’s advice, Albert’s parents bought him a violin.

Music was the key that helped Albert Einstein become one of the smartest men who has ever lived. Einstein himself attributes his success to the violin. A friend of Einstein, G.J. Withrow, said that the way Einstein figured out his problems and equations was by improvising on the violin.

The Grecian scholar Plato once said: “I would teach music, physics and philosophy; but most importantly music, for in the patterns of music and all the arts are the keys of learning.” Can it be concluded then that Music is: Science, Math, Foreign Language, History, Physical Education, but most of all Art. If this can link an Actor, a Musician, and a Mathematician under similar categories then it can be no less than a handful of the items listed. Christmas day 2011, I’d hinted to my parents’ gift ideas with low expectations. I opened a few gifts confused to why my parents purchased a wii when I’m a terror when it comes to video games.

I’m on what appears to be the last gift, happy with the idea of tossing away the annoying bright wrapping paper my parents chose this year. when I tear the edge of what I had determined was a book from its shape and size. The first tear made me smile, I didn’t need to unwrap the rest I knew what It was and I wanted to bask in the beauty of it. My parents had noticed my in-no-way obscure hints. From the tare in the paper I could see an image of a violin. It was a lesson book! Even while they rushed me to open it in hope to surprise me with the very last present, I already knew what they had gotten me.

Over all the benefits that came glazed into the varnish of my violin were less than adequate in comparison to the true gift my parents gave… They had listened and intern gave me an instrument that would train me to do the same for more than just myself.