Your Brain On Music

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Your Brain On Music

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I can't get that song out of my head!" is a common complaint when a jingle from a commercial rattles around in our minds and we hum it endlessly. Why do those bits of music get stuck in our memory?

Recent research has located the section of the brain that seems to foster holding on to a tune. A team of researchers from Dartmouth College scanned the brains of volunteers while bits of songs were played and then stopped suddenly.

The auditory cortex, the section of the brain that deals with information from the ears, showed brain activity while the music played and, interestingly, it also functioned when the music was turned off. The volunteers reported hearing the tune in their heads even after the music had stopped. The brain supplied the rest of the music from memory.

Familiarity plays an important part in how much of a tune or even the lyrics of a song stay in you memory. In other words, the more you listen to a particular song, the more likely it will become part of your memory.

The musical mind

In his recent book, This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin analyzed how the brain listens to a whole piece of music. Volunteers underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while they listened to classical music selections. The brain went through a strategic series of processes during the listening experience.

First the forebrain analyzed the structure and meaning of the tune and then dopamine was released, triggering a sense of reward. Next the cerebellum, the brain area connected to physical movement, reacted by assessing the tempo, rhythm and emotional peaks of the song. Dr. Levitin theorizes that in this step the mind was trying to figure out where the song would go next.

Assessing other types of music, Dr. Levitin concluded that popular music appealed to the mind and memory because it relies on the blend of sounds we call timbre. Each performer or band creates a signature timbre that remains consistent, causing the memory to recognize what is familiar.

Dr. Levitin believes pitch and harmony are becoming less important to those who produce and perform popular music (Clive Thompson, "Music of the Hemispheres," New York Times, Dec. 31, 2006). Having a consistent timbre is an effective way to market the brand of a certain group and sell music.

Take a brain check

The upshot of all this brain activity is that what we put in our brains will be there for a long time. It also means that listening to music is not a passive activity.

Not only is the brain working and the mind developing an emotional response to what is heard, but the center of movement in the cerebellum is called into play. Music is moving, literally—which explains the urge to tap our feet, clap our hands or snap our fingers along with catchy tunes in a performance!

What this means is that we have a responsibility to monitor what we are listening to. Are we choosing music that leads us to think positively about the future, our fellow human beings and God's way of life? Does the message the lyrics carry contain respect for the code of life outlined in the Ten Commandments, or does it counter that code?

Consume a steady listening diet of the good stuff because music has great power. Let it move you to do good things! VT