Music and the Brain

by Roy Mueller,

Director of Education, Kidspace Children's Museum, Pasadena

Roy Mueller is a valued member of the Shumei Arts Council of America's Advisory Board. He has given the Arts Council much good advice and support in establishing the "Music for Children's Ears" concerts for young school children at Shumei's Pasadena Center, a project undertaken in partnership with the Kidspace Museum. Before joining Kidspace, he worked at the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose, CA and the Staten Island Children's Museum in New York. Previous to his involvement with children and the arts, he performed with orchestras throughout the world as an oboist. Besides being a classically trained musician, Mr. Mueller also composes music, his most recent project being the music for Kidspace's original children's theater piece, "It's Good to Be an Ant," produced at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater in Los Angeles in July 2000.

The Greek word "mousa," meaning muse, the spirit-source of genius or inspiration, is the etymological root of both "museum" and "music." Centuries ago, two of the great Greek philosophers, Socrates and Plato, gained distinction as musicians and regarded the art of music as indispensable to the health of the soul. Plato believed that musical training was a more potent instrument than any other in the integration of the human being.

Pythagoreans believed that tones or combinations of tones could stimulate the growth of plants, moderate the passions of men, stimulate all types of emotions and thoughts, react upon inert substances, and evoke the most exalted feelings and aspirations. Even architecture was "music in stone" and a properly proportioned building could be "played" as though it were a piece of music.

In Greek culture, it was customary to entertain expectant mothers with songs and compositions played on the lute. Melodies were gracious, gentle, and calculated to evoke a mood of peace and security. The songs were protections against physical, emotional, or mental deformity of the unborn child.

However, music could also be used to destroy almost any material form and stimulate the most depraved impulses.

Greek philosophy divided music into three parts: rhythm, melody, and harmony. Rhythm was associated with the physical life and the functions of the body; melody, with man's psyche, emotional and mental; and harmony, with the totality of his spiritual existence.

Today modern science is studying some of the same music-related areas that so fascinated the Greeks.


Music: The Powerful Evocator

Fast forward to a Saturday night and place yourself at your favorite musical haunt, whether that be a local nightclub to hear a set of rock, jazz, rap, folk, or blues from your favorite band or a symphony hall where your local symphony or opera company is performing. What emotions are you feeling at this moment? Are you smiling? Crying? Laughing? Are your feet or hands tapping involuntarily to the beat of a favorite piece? Are you out on the dance floor or conducting the orchestra from your seat? Are you relaxed? Invigorated?

How does music magically effect these changes in our minds and our bodies? When we hear a particular piece of music why can we involuntarily recall vivid memories of a past event with crystal clarity, including when, where and who we were with, as well as the emotional state we were in at the time? How does music connect us to our emotional life?

In many cultures, the hypnotic, rhythmic beat of the drum carries dancers away into a pulsing world that makes the very atoms of their bodies vibrate. In the American South, slaves invented the blues by releasing the emotional burdens of their life through song. Expressing words of sorrow ironically seemed to relieve the singer's mind of his or her sadness while it simultaneously lifted the spirit. Is this evidence of the power of music?

Teachers in today's classrooms are using music to teach subjects as diverse as mathematics and reading. Children learn math multiplication tables to the rhythmic patterns of rap. Parents enroll their children in popular culture music-related "phonics" programs to help them learn to read. Young mothers purchase Mozart recordings for their infants to cognitively develop their brains.

What's going on here? Can something so enjoyable as music really help us learn and remember better?

Controversy swirls around these and many other questions concerning the place music plays in our lives. However, today scientists are beginning to collaborate to find answers to some of these questions stemming from ideas the ancient Greeks formed about music centuries ago. Their research may help us use music to learn more effectively, soothe our emotions, and live more productive lives. Research associations are being formed among disciplines as diverse as psychology, biology, education, music therapy, neuroscience, and cognitive science.

Research naturally raises more questions than it answers, but let's look at some of today's most intriguing findings related to music and its effect on the brain.


The Biology of Music

The ability to experience and react to music is deeply embedded in the biology of the nervous system. While findings have shown that music is processed mostly in the right hemisphere of the brain, no single set of cells is completely devoted to the task. Different networks of neurons are activated depending on whether the person is listening to or performing music. Whether or not the music has lyrics affects these networks as well. Researchers have discovered direct evidence that music stimulates specific regions of the brain responsible for memory, motor control, timing, and language.

The brain interprets written musical notes and scores in an area on its right side. That region complements an area on the opposite side of the brain that handles words and letters. Music has been shown to have an effect on both sides of the brain and may in fact help facilitate the communication between left and right hemispheres.

When exposed to music, parts of the brain actually grow like a muscle that has been exercised. Studies of people who have been musicians for many years have shown an enlargement of parts of the cerebral cortex, the layer of the brain most associated with higher brain function. Other studies have shown an increase in the size of the cerebellum, which contains about 70% of the brain's neurons. It is thought that the cerebellum grows as a result of the constant practice of the virtuoso motor skills needed to play an instrument.

Other studies have shown music to have a direct effect on our attention system through the types of frequencies we absorb. Researchers such as Norman Weinberger at the University of California, Irvine (Music and Science Information Computer Archive) are doing research based on a cell's response to sound stimuli. He has found that neurons are specifically sensitive to pure tone pitch, complex harmonic relationships, rhythm, and melodic contour.

Researchers are looking for ways to harness the power of music to change the brain. Eighty thousand people a year develop a speech delivery problem from stroke or brain trauma. Some doctors are using music as a therapeutic tool to rehabilitate stroke patients through Melodic Intonation Therapy. Some stroke patients who have lost their ability to speak retain their ability to sing. That opens an avenue for therapists to access the brain's speech centers. Patients sing what they want to say.


Emotions and the Brain

The parts of the brain involved with emotion seem to light up with activity when a person hears music. Researchers have located specific areas of mental activity linked to emotional responses to music. Different parts of the brain involved with emotions are activated depending on whether the music you listen to is pleasant or dissonant. The brain also seems to respond directly to harmony.

Many of us can relate a uniquely personal life experience and the emotions attached to it with a particular piece of music that was heard at the precise moment. Upon an accidental hearing of the same piece of music again later in our lives, many of us are able to recall that initial event with uncanny clarity and re-experience the original state.

Researchers doubt that a normal brain is immune to music's ability to tap the deep well of human emotion. Music seems to be both a human need and at the same time to function as the satisfaction of that need. Try an experiment on yourself. Live for a week without music -- no radio in the car as you drive to and from work, no singing in the shower, no CDs to relax to at home after work, etc. See how long you can last before you want or need to hear some music. Take note of what kind of music you want to listen to when you do -- what emotional state are you trying to achieve? Try this experiment with a friend and compare notes.

It appears that the interaction of two factors -- how much we like a piece and the magnitude of its arousal potential -- affect our emotional response to the music. Tempo and articulation of a piece transfer the emotional content of music. A feeling of happiness in listeners is evoked by fast, staccato music. Sadness in listeners is evoked by slow, legato music. Anger is felt through music that was fast and legato. And fear is experienced through slow, staccato music.

In an Arizona study, five- and nine-year-old children were asked to match various cartoon faces to the emotions they thought twelve different selections of classical music represented. Both groups did very well at matching emotions to the music, prompting researchers to hypothesize that emotional sensitivity to music is present at five years of age.

Other findings have studied music's effect on changes in heart rate, blood flow, respiration and skin temperature. At Cornell University, college students with about seven years of music training were asked to listen to music and judge it as one of three moods: happy, sad, or fearful. Researchers found similar physiological reactions in the students no matter what emotion the students identified from the music: a decreased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased rate of breathing, and decreased skin temperature. However, even more interesting were the findings that "happy" had the largest changes in respiration; "sad" the greatest changes in heart rate; "fear" the biggest changes in blood flow rate. Genuine emotions keyed by a response to music have distinct physiological responses. Music does not only convey intended emotions (e.g. music written for the scary scenes in a movie) but produces genuine emotions in the listener. In other words, music written for the scary movie scenes would probably produce the same emotions within the listener even if it were heard independently, outside of its movie context.

In Amsterdam, Dr. Diana Issidorides at the Dutch National Science Center, New Metropolis (NEMO), has developed a new exhibit that asks visitors to discover how music can color and influence our experiences and interpretations. "The Power of Music" explores the dynamic effect of music and sound effects on visitors' interpretations of a short video clip that is accompanied by one of three different musical scores (e.g. thriller, dramatic love story, slapstick comedy). After viewing the video and answering a short multiple-choice questionnaire, visitors are shown that their interpretation of the video was solely based on the type of music they heard.

Still other researchers have found evidence of music's effect on the neural networks that influence our emotions and mood states. There is also some indication that music can affect levels of various hormones, including cortisol (involved in arousal and stress), testosterone (involved in arousal and aggression) and oxytocin (involved in nurturing behavior), as well as triggering the natural opiates known as endorphins. In the future, music may help us positively self-regulate our emotional life. Maybe modern science is actually confirming something the Greeks intuited about music long ago.


Music and Cognition

Children usually learn how to read in three stages: visually recognizing words; learning the correspondences between visual parts of words (graphemes) and their spoken sounds (phonemes); and achieving visual recognition of words.

Children "sound out" syllables and words while they are in the second stage and discard this step when they reach stage three. It seems that music facilitates reading by improving the second phonemic stage. Pitch change of verbal word components is thought to be the most important factor in conveying word information. Researchers have found that good pitch discrimination related to music training benefits children learning to read.

In another study, four- and five-year-olds were tested on the effects of music on both learning and creativity. The subjects learned the names of their body parts by various means and were assessed on creativity through the Torrence Test of Creative Thinking, involving picture construction and picture completion. There were four groups in the study:

Control group, which received no training;

Group that received verbal instructions in the names and uses of body parts;

Group that received verbal instructions plus acted out movements; and

Music/dance group in which verbal instructions were given by song and acting out movements were done in the form of a dance.

After 20 days of training, all experimental groups exhibited higher test scores than the control group. However, the music/dance group showed the greatest improvement in both learning about body parts and tests of creativity.

Does the brain need exercise like the rest of our body? Research has shown that brain synapses grow stronger through use and are weakened through disuse. Learning and performing music actually exercise the brain by strengthening the synapses between brain cells. Brain scans taken during musical performances show that virtually the entire cerebral cortex is active while musicians are playing. Other studies have implied the effect of regular piano instruction on improvement in cognitive domains such as mathematics and reading.

Is music intuitive? Jeanne Bamberger from MIT thinks so and has a new book out entitled Developing Musical Intuitions: A Project-Based Introduction to Making and Understanding Music. Bamberger calls musical intuition "what everyone knows how to do when they know how to make sense of the music all around them." She says musical intuitions are not innate, but learned and specific to the particular musical culture. She aims to demonstrate how nearly all students, even those with no prior musical training, can reconstruct a tune they have heard using structural elements called "tuneblocks" (motifs, figures, phrases, and melodies) as the units of work. Using a computer software program, students compose their own melodies by arranging and rearranging tuneblocks in a sequence until it sounds right to their intuitive sense. They learn to create a structural framework for their musical intuitions and add descriptive details like pitch, rhythm, harmony, and form. The goal is to help students become active and engaged music makers.


Early Childhood Research

Does Mozart make you smarter? Much has been written about the zero-to-three years of age phenomenon and music's place in that critical developmental phase through "The Mozart Effect." Popular culture books ("The Mozart Effect" by Don Campbell) and CDs ("The Mozart Effect: Music for Children" compiled by Don Campbell) have been offered with oversimplifications of the effect that distorts the original research. What actually is the effect?

"The Mozart Effect" is a term coined in 1993 by Frances Rauscher (University of Wisconsin) and Gordon Shaw (UC, Irvine) who found that listening to a Mozart piano sonata for 10 minutes briefly but temporarily increased college students' spatial-temporal reasoning skills on one test of the Stanford-Binet Scale of Intelligence, the paper-folding task. Spatial-temporal reasoning is our ability to form mental images from physical objects or to see patterns in space or time. These skills aid in understanding proportion and geometry and are key for engineers and architects. The students' skill improvement faded within the hour.

A follow-up experiment by the same researchers in 1995 divided California pre-schoolers into four groups: group one took private, 12-15 minute piano lessons each week; group two took 30-minute singing lessons five days a week; and group three was trained on computers.

After six to eight months, the piano-trained children had improved their scores by 34% on a spatial-temporal task requiring them to put together a puzzle of a camel. The effects of the training seemed to last to the next day. This suggests that piano lessons may be capable of creating changes that are more permanent in the brain's hard wiring. However, when these same children were tested on a special recognition task, one that is used more commonly in a person's life, there was no change in ability.

Rauscher and Shaw's 1993 research pointed to the need for active music making rather than passive listening to create long-term effects of increased spatial-temporal skills. Rauscher also contributed to the development of a program entitled Spatial-Temporal Animation Reasoning (STAR) that integrates piano keyboard training and math through a computer game. The game is used to train students to use their spatial-temporal abilities to learn difficult math concepts such as fractions, symmetry, graphing, and pre-algebra.

There are other findings that suggest early-exposure to music affects a child's brain. Six first grade classrooms were studied in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Two classrooms received music and visual arts instruction typically found in many U.S. schools and four other classrooms were taught to sing using the Kodaly method. The Kodaly method, developed by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, teaches children to sing using songs that are sequenced in difficulty.

After seven months, according to Martin Gardner, the researcher on the project, the four classrooms receiving Kodaly instruction were doing the same or slightly better than the control classrooms. The Kodaly students had zoomed ahead of their peers in mathematics, even though they had started out slightly behind. Researchers believe that music aids children's understanding of such concepts as number lines. In music when you sing on pitch, each pitch has a line of its own (do is less than re; re is less than mi). They also believe that when a person develops one kind of mental skill, such as Kodaly training in one area of the brain that the brain can sometimes transfer that skill to another area of learning where it is needed.

Can infants use musical clues for memory? In a study conducted by researchers at Iona College and St. John's University in New York, three-month-old infants learned to move an overhead crib mobile by kicking while one or two particular music selections were played. The mobile's stand was attached to the baby's ankle by a ribbon so that each kick produced movement. Infants learned the task and memory of the learning was tested after one day and then seven days later. The number of kicks/mobile movements was recorded in the presence of either the music played during the learning or a different selection. Retention was the same after one day, regardless of the music selection played. However, after seven days, the infants remembered that kicking produced mobile movement only when they heard the particular music that was played during the learning phase. This leads researchers to believe that music can define or give meaning to a learning situation.


In Summary

These findings only scratch the surface of today's early stages of music and brain research. Many findings are not complete or definitive. The Greeks may have begun this process centuries ago, but today's dedicated scientific researchers continue to ask questions about how music affects the brain.

Music has been called a universal language because it helps us communicate with each other and express ourselves. Through music, we can create as a composer, perform as a musician, or respond as an audience. Caregivers across cultures communicate with infants through lullabies and musical baby talk. Toddlers spontaneously use music in their play and communications, composing songs that are meaningful for them.

Music gives us many opportunities to enhance our lives. It strengthens the brain and enhances learning skills. While there are still many questions to be answered, research shows that music can be a powerful tool for learning skills. It is my hope that these findings will inspire both parents and childcare providers to present opportunities for children to experience the power of music first hand. It is not so important whether that experience is attending a concert or learning how to play an instrument. What is important is the personal connection that a child makes with music during his/her formative years. This connection has the power to bring us tremendous joy as it enhances our entire life. Programs like the Shumei Arts Council of America's children's concerts fire an early interest in the delights of music that young people carry with them for years to come. Please support efforts like these to bring the power of music to the children of our community.

Roy Mueller can be reached by e-mail at The original version of this article was published in the Fall 2001 issue of Hand to Hand, a quarterly publication of the Association of Children's Museums, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission