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This is your brain on music

UCF instructors explore the intersection of music and neuroscience

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In Sugaya and Yonetani’s UCF course, the brain is examined purely in relation to instrumental, primarily classical, music. Because lyrics have a meaning of their own, which the brain must interpret separately from the melody, they focus the course on instrumental works used for military purposes and in movies and advertising. Students work in groups intentionally comprised of individuals with differing backgrounds in music, psychology or biology, and the study is supplemented by music recordings that help them experience firsthand the effects they’re discussing in class.

“I often demonstrate and discuss things by actually playing the violin, which is sometimes more powerful than words,” Yonetani says.

Perhaps it’s because music speaks in ways a straight lecture cannot. For the majority of people, music is processed in the part of the brain where language is processed, including the primary motor cortex and the auditory cortices, which are known to be activated not only when we hear music, but also when we think of it, as neuroscientist Robert Zatorre observed in the ’90s. When students in the UCF program require an example of brain stimulation, they are treated to a performance by Yonetani.

“It is easier for her to express herself in music than in the words,” Sugaya says. “This may be true for many musicians, since music … uses the same part of the brain used for language.”

The UCF course has expanded since it was first conceived, and the discussion these days frequently broadens to include subjects that intrigue the current crop of students. (For instance, one class included a presentation that investigated the recreational use of music to produce a specific “high,” called iDosing.)

In the last two years, cognitive neuroscientists around the world have expanded their research into music to include not just instrumental music, but also a wider range of genres, including rock and rap. One study in October 2012 by scientists connected to the National Institutes of Health, called “Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation,” demonstrated that freestyle rapping activated entirely different parts of the brain than rehearsed raps over the same beats. What’s more, the act of freestyling required the brain to shut down certain parts to allow the rapper to form the loose associations that make for biting lyrics. If only we could get brain scans on Eminem or – perhaps better – go back in time for a look at Big L’s perisylvian cortex.

In September 2012, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart let scientists broadcast his brain scans in front of a live audience at the annual meeting of the American Association of Retired Persons in New Orleans. This was not just a publicity stunt. Hart started working with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley to study how rhythm can help Alzheimer’s patients after he noticed his grandmother’s communication abilities were improved by the sound of his drumming. In this way, music is more than just a recreational drug people are bingeing on – it’s also a medical tool with curative properties that scientists are discovering and substantiating in studies happening every day.

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