Michael Jackson was on to something when he sang that “A-B-C” is “simple as ‘Do Re Mi.'” Music helps kids remember basic facts such as the order of letters in the alphabet, partly because songs tap into fundamental systems in our brains that are sensitive to melody and beat.
That’s not all: when you play music, you are exercising your brain in a unique way.
“I think there’s enough evidence to say that musical experience, musical exposure, musical training, all of those things change your brain,” says Dr. Charles Limb, associate professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins University. “It allows you to think in a way that you used to not think, and it also trains a lot of other cognitive facilities that have nothing to do with music.”
The connection between music and the brain is the subject of a symposium at the Association for Psychological Science conference in Chicago, featuring prominent scientists and Grammy-winning bassist Victor Wooten. They will discuss the remarkable ways our brains enable us to appreciate, remember and play music, and how we can harness those abilities in new ways.
There are more facets to the mind-music connection than there are notes in a major scale, but it’s fascinating to zoom in on a few to see the extraordinary affects music can have on your brain.
Music stuck in your head like ear worms
Whether it’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Somebody That I Used to Know,” or even “Bad Romance” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it’s easy to get part of a song stuck in your head, perhaps even a part that you don’t particularly like. It plays over and over on repeat, as if the “loop” button got stuck on your music player.
Scientists think of these annoying sound segments as “ear worms.” They don’t yet know much about why they happen, but research is making headway on what’s going on.
The songs that get stuck in people’s heads tend to be melodically and rhythmically simple, says Daniel Levitin, a psychologist who studies the neuroscience of music at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. It’s usually just a segment of the song, not the entire thing from beginning to end. A common method of getting rid of an ear worm is to listen to a different song — except, of course, that song might plant itself in your thoughts for awhile.
“What we think is going on is that the neural circuits get stuck in a repeating loop and they play this thing over and over again,” Levitin said.
In rare cases, ear worms can actually be detrimental to people’s everyday functioning, Levitin said. There are people who can’t work, sleep or concentrate because of songs that won’t leave their heads. They may even need to take the same anti-anxiety medications given to people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, drugs that relax the neural circuits that are stuck in an infinite loop.
How we evolved to remember music
Given how easily song snippets get stuck in our heads, music must be linked to some sort of evolutionary adaptation that helped our ancestors.
Bone flutes have been dated to about 40,000 to 80,000 years ago, so people were at least playing music. Experts assume that people were probably singing before they went to the trouble of fashioning this instrument, Levitin said. In Judaism, the Torah was set to music as a way to remember it before it was written down.
“The structures that respond to music in the brain evolved earlier than the structures that respond to language,” Levitin said.
Levitin points out that many of our ancestors, before there was writing, used music to help them remember things, such as how to prepare foods or the way to get to a water source. These procedural tasks would have been easier to remember as songs. Today, we still use songs to teach children things in school, like the 50 states.
What about remembering how to play music?
When you sit down at the piano and learn how to play a song, your brain has to execute what’s known as a “motor-action plan.” It means that a sequence of events must unfold in a particular order, your fingers must hit a precise pattern of notes in order. And you rehearse those motor movements over and over, strengthening the neural circuits the more you practice.
But musicians who memorize how to play music often find they can’t just begin a remembered piece at any point in the song. The brain has a certain number of entry nodes in the motor-action plan, so you can only access the information from particular points in the song.
“Even though it feels like it’s in your fingers, it’s not,” Levitin said. “It’s in the finger representation in your head.”
Music and pleasure
Music is strongly associated with the brain’s reward system. It’s the part of the brain that tells us if things are valuable, or important or relevant to survival, said Robert Zatorre, professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Montreal Neurological Institute.
One brain structure in particular, called the striatum, releases a chemical called dopamine in response to pleasure-related stimuli. Imaging of the brain can reveal this process is similar to what happens in your brain in response to food or sex.
But unlike those activities, music doesn’t have a direct biological survival value. “It’s not obvious that it should engage that same system,” Zatorre said.
Musicians can’t see inside their own brains, but they’re aware of moments of tension and release in pieces, and that’s what arrangers of music do.
Zatorre and colleagues did an experiment where they used whatever music participants said gave them pleasure to examine this dopamine release. They excluded music with words in order to focus on the music itself rather than lyrics — the melodic structure, for example.
At the point in a piece of music when people experience peak pleasure, part of the brain called the ventral striatum releases dopamine. But here’s something even more interesting: Dopamine is released from a different brain area (the dorsal striatum) about 10 to 15 seconds before the moment of peak pleasure.
Why would we have this reaction before the most pleasurable part of the piece of music? The brain likes to investigate its environment and figure out what’s coming next, Zatorre explains.
“As you’re anticipating a moment of pleasure, you’re making predictions about what you’re hearing and what you’re about to hear,” he said. “Part of the pleasure we derive from it is being able to make predictions.”
So if you’re getting such a strong dopamine rush from music — it could even be comparable to methamphetamines, Zatorre said — why not make drug addicts listen to music? It’s not quite that simple.
Neuroscientists believe there’s basically one pleasure mechanism, and music is one route into it. Drugs are another. But different stimuli have different properties. And it’s no easier to tell someone to replace drugs with music than to suggest eating instead of having sex — these are all pleasurable activities with important differences.
Rocking to the beat
Did you know that monkeys can’t tap their feet to songs, or recognize beats?
It appears that humans are the only primates who move to the beat of music. Aniruddh Patel at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California, speculates that this is because our brains are organized in a different way than our close species relatives. Grooving to a beat may be related to the fact that no other primates can mimic complex sounds.
Curiously, some birds can mimic what they hear and move to beats. Patel’s research with a cockatoo suggests the beat responses may have originated as a byproduct of vocal mimicry, but also play a role in social bonding, Patel said. Armies train by marching to a beat, for instance. Group dancing is a social activity. There also are studies showing that when people move together to a beat, they’re more likely to cooperate with each other in nonmusical tasks than if they’re not in synch.
Another exciting arena of research: Music with a beat seems to help people with motor disorders such as Parkinson’s disease walk better than in the absence of music — patients actually synchronize their movements to a beat, Patel said.
“That’s a very powerful circuit in the brain,” he said. “It can actually help people that have these serious neurological diseases.”
There’s also some evidence to suggest that music can help Alzheimer’s patients remember things better, and that learning new skills such as musical instruments might even stave off dementia.
There still needs to be more research in these areas to confirm, but Limb is hopeful about the prospect of musical engagement as a way to prevent, or at least delay, dementia.
“That’s a pretty amazing thing that, from sound, you can stimulate the entire brain,” Limb said. “If you think about dementia as the opposite trend, of the brain atrophying, I think there’s a lot of basis to it.”
Music and emotions
You may associate particular songs with events in your life — Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” might remind you of your graduation day, if you had a graduation in the 1990s or 2000s, for example.
Despite variation in any given person’s life experience, studies have shown that music listeners largely agree with one another when it comes to the emotions presented in a song. This may be independent of lyrics; musical sounds themselves may carry emotional meaning, writes Cornell University psychologist Carol Krumhansl in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Educational shows such as “Sesame Street” have been tapping into the power of music to help youngsters remember things for decades. Even babies have been shown to be sensitive to beats and can recognize a piece of music that they’ve already heard.
Advertisers exploit music in many commercials to make you excited about products. As a result, you may associate songs with particular cars, for instance.
Here’s one way you might not already be using music: Making a deliberate effort to use music to alter mood. Listen to something that makes you energetic at the beginning of the day, and listen to a soothing song after an argument, Levitin says.
Music as a language
Victor Wooten of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones isn’t a scientist, but he has thought a lot about the process of learning to play music. For him, introducing a child to music shouldn’t be different from the way a child begins speaking.
“I just approach music as a language, because it is,” Wooten said. “It serves the same purpose. It’s a form of expression. A way for me to express myself, convey feelings, and sometimes it actually works better than a written or verbal language.”
Traditionally, a child learns to play music by being taught how an instrument works, and learning to play easy pieces that they practice over and over. They might also play music with other beginners. All the rules come first — notes, chords, notation — before they play.
But with language, young children never know that they’re beginners, Wooten said. No one makes them feel bad when they say a word incorrectly, and they’re not told to practice that word dozens of times. Why should it be different with music?
“If you think about trying to teach a toddler how to read, and the alphabet, and all that stuff, before they can speak, we’d realize how silly that really is,” Wooten said. “Kids most of the time quit, because they didn’t come there to learn that. They came to learn to play.”
He remembers learning to play music in an immersive way, rather than in a formulaic sequence of lessons. When he was born, his four older brothers were already playing music and knew they needed a bass player to complete the band. “My brothers never said, ‘This is what you’re going to do,'” he said.
Wooten took this philosophy and created summer camps to get kids excited about music in a more natural way.
“It’s rare that I ever meet a musician who doesn’t agree that music is a language. But it’s very rare to meet a musician that really treats it like one.”
There you have it: Music that gets stuck in your head can be annoying, but it also serves a multitude of other purposes that benefit you. If you treat it like a language, as Wooten suggests, you might learn new skills and reap some of the brain health benefits that neurologists are exploring.
It’s more complicated than “A, B, C,” but that’s how amazing the mind can be.