Earworms, Pleasure, Memory: Music is in your head, changing your brain   2 comments

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.

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.”

… 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.


… 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.” … 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.


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.


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.

… 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.


Did you know that monkeys can’t tap their feet to songs, or recognize beats?


t 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.
Snowball the cockatoo can dance to song beats, whereas monkeys cannot, says Aniruddh Patel.

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.

“Some people have theorized that that was the original function of this behavior in evolution: It was a way of bonding people emotionally together in groups, through shared movement and shared experience,” Patel said.

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.


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.

… 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.


By Elizabeth Landau

Posted August 1, 2013 by kitokinimi in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

2 responses to “Earworms, Pleasure, Memory: Music is in your head, changing your brain

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  1. Pingback: Is music really all that great? | Rob's Surf Report

  2. Pingback: What Do You Do When A Song Is Stuck In Your Head? | rsmithing

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