by Kathy Kucsan, Ph.D.
It seems that every day, more research emerges showing that music benefits the brain in many different ways. We’ve known for a long time that young students studying music get better grades, learn faster, have better focus, and seem to do better all-around in social settings. Amazingly, science still does not fully understand the exact process of how sound goes from a mechanical wave that enters the ear and transforms into electrical signals that our brains then decipher and interpret. Sound that we know as music doesn’t follow a set path in our heads – it is relayed around different parts of the brain simultaneously and that process translates into how we comprehend and respond to music. Music lights up many areas of the brain at once, and that is very good for us.
First, the brain takes the sound/music signals and breaks them down, starting with volume (soft-loud) and pitch. Then it relays finer components of music, like timbre (the quality of sound – the unique color that makes a trumpet sound different than a violin, for example), duration, pattern, and spatial location (where the different sounds originate).
Also involved in all of this sound processing are the emotional centers of the brain. As we all know, music elicits feelings of all kinds. With particularly meaningful or evocative music, we can have a dopamine rush. Or we get chills, (the technical term for aesthetically-induced chills is “frisson.”)
Depending on the music you’re listening to, you might feel an irresistible urge to move, tap your foot, or dance. Starting in the brain, the rest of our bodies might experience changes in pulse or respiration rates depending on the musical stimulus, and we might experience entrainment, or synching up with the music.
The best brain workout is learning to play an instrument.
Reading music, coordinating fine motor skill, breath, and producing beautiful sound engages the entire brain and actually becomes the “brain’s equivalent to a full-body workout.” Here’s a TED video that illustrates the whole amazing process. Enjoy!