Can’t get that song out of your brain?

Whether you are rocking out to Led Zeppelin in your car or reading with Bach in your bedroom, music has a special ability to pump us up or calm us down.  Scientists are still trying to figure out what’s going on in our brain when we listen to music and how it produces such potent effects on the psyche.

Much research has been done using music to help us better understand brain function in general.  Recent studies explored how the brain responds to music. The quest to dissect exactly what chemical processes occur when we put our headphones on is far from over, but scientists have come across some clues.

Listening to music feels good, but can that translate into physiological benefit?

YES!   In one study, researchers studied patients who were about to undergo surgery. Participants were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs. Scientists tracked patient’s ratings of their own anxiety, as well as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The results: The patients who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than people who took drugs.  This points toward a powerful medicinal use for music.  Music is arguably less expensive than drugs, and it’s easier on the body and it doesn’t have side effects.  There is also evidence that music is associated with immunoglobin A, an antibody linked to immunity, as well as higher counts of cells that fight germs and bacteria.

So music is good for us, but how do we judge what music is pleasurable?

A study published in the journal Science suggests that patterns of brain activity can indicate whether a person likes what he or she is hearing.  Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, researchers led a study in which participants listened to 60 excerpts of music they had never heard before.  The participants were asked to indicate how much money they would spend on a given song when listening to the excerpts, while also allowing researchers to analyze patterns of brain activity through the fMRI.  Results noted increased activity in the brain area called the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in forming expectations and a key structure of our brain’s reward network. The more activity in the nucleus accumbens, the more money people said they were willing to spend on any particular song. This was an indicator that some sort of reward-related expectations were met or surpassed.

An area of the brain called the superior temporal gyrus is intimately involved in the experience of music, and its connection to the nucleus accumbens is important, she said. The genres of music that a person listens to over a lifetime impact how the superior temporal gyrus is formed.

The superior temporal gyrus alone doesn’t predict whether a person likes a given piece of music, but it’s involved in storing templates from what you’ve heard before. For instance, a person who has heard a lot of jazz before is more likely to appreciate a given piece of jazz music than someone with a lot less experience.

Have you ever met someone who just wasn’t into music?

They may have a condition called specific musical anhedonia, which affects three-to-five per cent of the population. Researchers have discovered that people with this condition showed reduced functional connectivity between cortical regions responsible for processing sound and subcortical regions related to reward.

This means that when we experience music, a lot of other things are going on beyond merely processing sound. By using music as a window into the function of a healthy brain, researchers may gain insights into a slew of neurological and psychiatric problems.  Knowing better how the brain is organized, how it functions, what chemical/electrical  synapses  are occurring and how they’re working will allow us to formulate treatments for people with brain injury, or to combat diseases or disorders as well as psychiatric problems.