Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Music, Body, and Brain

I am by no means musically inclined or knowledgeable, but the idea of going through an entire day without my iPod is terrorizing.

Early in the morning, I wouldn’t be able to last ten minutes on the treadmill without my embarrassingly titled “Do Work” playlist pushing a fast-paced rhythm through my sleepy body. As I try to understand biological statistics, Bob Dylan or Queen softly rings through my headphones, drowning out the sound of sorority girl neighbors and infusing my mind with a sort of serenity that only good, classic rock can invoke.  And on those nights that I can’t sleep, Claude Debussy hits a few piano keys and I am suddenly unconscious, floating off into Neverland.

I know that I am not alone. Approximately half of the people that I pass on the sidewalk each day are aimlessly wondering to class just like me; white cords gracefully framing their faces and swaying with each step as their minds are transfixed on whatever comes out of the insect-like Apple earbuds that I can’t see under their hat or hair, but know to be there.

So I wonder, what does music really do for us? 

Photo credit: d o l f i

In the European Journal of Medicine, two Italian scientists published a review of currently existing scientific evidence on the connection between music and human biology in August 2011.

They point out that there is an increasing amount of experimental evidence supporting the idea that music may in fact influence cardiac and neurological functions, and also trigger measurable stress-reducing effects in some people.  Much of this data though, is dependent upon the individual’s music education.

I haven’t picked up a trumpet since the seventh grade, so is all of my spare cash spent on iTunes gift cards for classical CD collections for nothing? Just maybe.

Medical equipment such as Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) allow us to see just which areas of the brain respond to musical stimuli, and even reveal the pathways that allow us to perceive music and evoke emotional responses. In their most basic explanation, the two authors cite evidence that showed for musical “inexperts,” music activated the right “intuitive” brain hemisphere. For those with a little more knowledge, listening to music activated the “left” or “rational” side of the brain.

This is perhaps because the right side of the brain perceives “timbre” and “melody”, while the left side of the brain analyzes “rhythm” and “pitch” which are considered to be mathematical and syntactical faces of music.

And that moment on the treadmill in which I think I can actually feel Beyonce’s voice increasingly pushing the blood through my, “I should still be horizontal” legs as the beat builds? Well that’s not really happening.

Unless I suffer from amusia, a consequence of brain damage in which one isn’t “able to recognize and distinguish unison, the octave and pitch,” or a geriatric degenerative neurological disease such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

These are the individuals most often studied in clinical music-therapy trials, and the results often indicate positive correlation with motor parameters.  For older people with “gait impairment,” music-based multitasking training, when it was prolonged for six months, improved not only walking and balance but also decreased both the rate and risk of falling.

Another experiment, carried out at a Japanese geriatric nursing hospital, found that music decreased biochemical variables and congestive heart failure in a group of 87 observed elderly patients that had either dementia or cerebrovascular disease.

So what about in young folks? Are there no musical benefits for them?

The authors address a new, up and coming area of research in which very little is understood. A “digital drug” concept in which atonal, repetitive, high-volume music creates an experience similar to that of recreational drugs. Unfortunately, the subject has not been very thoroughly analyzed.

They do also point to an experiment in which six musical pieces were played, among them the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beethoven, and techno.  The scientists found that a two-minute silent pause between each of the songs reduced heart rate, blood pressure, and ventilation all below baseline, thus indicating a “profound relaxing effect.”

I often scold my mom for not forcing me to listen to more classical music as a baby thus putting me at an intellectual disadvantage, but these two authors point out that the “Mozart effect” so many commonly claim to yield best outcomes in experiments is more of a “probably non-existent Mozart effect.”  They say that because the evidence is so widespread and dependent upon musical education, it isn’t necessarily true.

Maybe I should forego the attempt to boost my intelligence with some Chopin while studying and stick with what I’m musically intelligible on: an eclectic variety of old-school rap, oldies, and my dad’s rock collection.

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