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This is your brain on music

UCF instructors explore the intersection of music and neuroscience

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But unlike a drug whose impact is largely known, music has an intriguingly (and frustratingly) vague mixture of effects on the brain that depends completely upon the individual. A musician experiences a wholly different listening experience than a small child first exposed to melodies. No two guitarists replicate the same brain activity after hearing the same song. So no matter what science discovers, your relationship with music will always be unique. That’s pretty punk.

“For a novice, we’re using only the side of the brain called the temporal lobe,” Sugaya says. “And that’s the part for language, speaking and listening. The same idea of the language center we use when listening to music, but on top of that, musicians, they use the occipital lobe, that’s the visual, meaning when they are listening to music, they are seeing this kind of score.”

This ability to conjure musical imagery is distinctly tied to how we use our brains, meaning some people really are better-suited toward musicality than others, so if you struggled through piano lessons or squawk the lyrics of your favorite song, be comforted by the knowledge that your brain simply works in other ways. In Musicophilia, Sacks details many cases of individuals whose musical talents were triggered by brain damage, lending credence to this theory. But that doesn’t mean all musicians are brain-damaged.

“We, musicians, need to imagine what notes we want to produce seconds before the actual sound comes out. We are all trained to imagine music,” Yonetani says. “We ‘sing’ music in our mind seconds before we actually play.”

Whether you’re a musician, a music enthusiast or just someone occasionally bombarded by indie rock bands during commercials (have you seen Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s ad for Delta Faucets yet?), the music you encounter indisputably activates your brain to influence the emotional, perceptual and physical quality of your life. In regard to health, there are unusual cases where music is as much tied to maladies (such as music-listening-induced seizures) as it is to cures and therapies. But given the rapid advancements of research in the cognitive neuroscience of music, sparing time to listen could become as regularly doctor-recommended as your daily vitamins in the very near future.

“[There’s] a big, big difference,” Sugaya says, between the benefits to a musician versus a listener. “But listening to music is better than nothing.”

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