The Melodies of the Brain

by Kaylin Magosin

1. Music is an inseparable part of our everyday lives.

Whether you are listening to your favorite playlist on the way to class or hear it thumping in the room down the hall, music is practically everywhere. In addition to being a “feel good pick-me-up” for a majority of the world, the field of music therapy has grown as a curious novelty over the past century in the arena of clinical neurobiological treatments for numerous conditions.

Music therapy became a clinical profession in the 1940s. After the formation of several organizations that eventually joined together, the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) was established. In its essence, music therapy is a complementary and alternative medical (CAM) method—a non-mainstream treatment that is used instead of or in conjunction with pharmacological and traditional treatments—utilized to treat various medical conditions. In other words, music therapy serves as a unique mechanism to rewire the brain and help individuals who suffer from conditions that affect them both psychologically and physiologically.

According to AMTA, music therapy is used to “address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals.” Music therapy has distinguished itself as an effective clinical method, treating a variety of disorders through its influential effects on specific parts of the brain.              

2. Modulate the amygdala, and you affect social and emotional control…

The power behind music therapy lies in a region of the brain known as the amygdala. Music stimulates this emotional reward center in the brain and naturally manufactures appropriate social and emotional responses, resulting in better impulse control, improved reward-based learning and enhanced motivation. For these very reasons, music therapy has even been used to treat substance abuse disorders.

In one study, “The Use of Art and Music Therapy in Substance Abuse Treatment Programs,” data indicated that CAM methods such as music therapy are successful in treating women and adolescents with addictions and their concomitant emotional effects. By utilizing music, patients are able to communicate their needs and emotions more effectively than through traditional methods. In addition, patients tend to accept their conditions and receive treatments more easily, aiding in a smoother path to rehabilitation.

3. Music’s rhythm helps organize and implement            

Music significantly affects the brain’s centers for motor skills. Upon exposure to auditory stimuli, it is purported that a person’s nervous system accesses higher cognitive processing areas in the brain, including the frontal lobe, which is responsible for higher level processing. The cerebellum, which controls balance and coordination, and the basal ganglia, which regulates voluntary movement, are also affected. The musical stimuli simultaneously travel down the spinal column in a reflexive manner, producing more organized movement caused by modulation in rhythm and motion. Given this effect of music on the brain, music therapy is increasingly used to treat autism spectrum disorders (ASD), dementia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

To illustrate, according to the study “Instructional and Improvisational Models of Music Therapy with Adolescents Who Have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A Comparison of the Effects on Motor Impulsivity,” adolescents suffering from ADHD cannot maintain a “steady beat or an organized rhythm due to poor impulse control.” This is due to their prefrontal cortex’s inability to plan, organize, and estimate time. However, after the subjects of the study experienced the prevailing CAM method, it was concluded that “music therapy may contribute to reduction in a range of ADHD symptoms in the classroom.”

In a similar way, music therapy is also known to improve cognitive skills such as executive functioning. In the ADHD study mentioned above, when patients’ impulsivity affected their fine motor skills, it also resulted in poor working memory due to an inability to organize incoming stimuli. Just as the rhythm of music affects the motor-controlling part of the brain, in a similar manner, the rhythm produced is thought to help the brain’s prefrontal cortex and hippocampus organize incoming information, leading to improved memorization skills. It is also thought to contribute to an increase in the ability to learn as well as retain information and pay attention.

4. Neural plasticity allows the brain to change

Music therapy has provided relief to patients suffering from a wide scope of conditions.  Although the conditions are different, how the brain changes as a result of music therapy is purported to be the same across all conditions.

In a 2005 study, a group of rats was trained to be “experts” at distinguishing between very small differences in loudness. These rats were able to differentiate between the amplitudes of sound as the groups of neurons, or brain cells, in the auditory cortex of the brain changed the sensitivity to only fire at certain levels of loudness. The phenomenon of neurons modulating to discriminate between different levels of a stimulus is called plasticity, indicating that the brain can mold to learn new things. It is thought that this learning is a physiological process, where the neurons physically rearrange and rewire themselves.

However, surprisingly, in the case of the “expert” rats, the response rate (neuron firing) eventually reached a threshold, rising as the loudness increased. However, the rate at which neuron firing changed in response to an increase or decrease in loudness—either up or down—did in fact correlate with the firing rate ratio. The ability to adjust the selectivity of the neurons and thus how they fire was significant, as this fact indicated that our brains can be rewired to become more selective, thus becoming increasingly sensitive to changes in our environment and helping us perceive the world around us.

5. Methods to rewire the brain

One specific music therapy treatment is the Tomatis method. By using classical music such as Mozart, the Tomatis method provides a musical contrast by changing the music heard from low timbre and intensity to high timbre and intensity in order to surprise the brain, triggering attention-related mechanisms. In this method, an individual wears specialized headphones that, in addition to transmitting sound through the air to the ear canal, also transmit sound through vibration, or bone conduction. Electrical stimulation transmitted through the acoustic vibration travels through the ear to the brain.

This electrical stimulation reaches the peripheral cortical areas and the auditory cortex, eventually reaching the prefrontal cortex, which analyzes and integrates information and directs it back to the ear, resulting in improved motor functioning, cognitive abilities, sensory integration, speech and behavior. In essence, the ever-changing music rewires the brain, constantly molding and challenging the boundaries of neural plasticity.

6. A promising future for music therapy            

Next time you listen to your favorite playlist or hear music thumping down the hall, think twice about how music might be affecting your own mood, focus or attention. Listening to music might simply be more than entertainment. If the average person turns to music for relaxation, to pump them up before the big game or to stay focused, just think of the promising future music therapy can have.

Once merely known as a “feel good pick-me-up,” music has now become a viable clinical therapy. As the neuroscience behind music therapy continues to strengthen and the key tenements of this knowledge become more widely known, the number of medical professionals and patients tuning to music therapy is likely to grow, like a beautiful and glorious symphony crescendo.