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Music and the human brain – Score Short Reads

Isn’t music’s inherent ability to evoke emotion an intriguing medical mystery? Music is an extensively structured auditory language entailing complex perception, cognition, and motor control in the brain.

Ancient men, 30,000 years ago, were already playing jaw harps and vulture bone flutes. Every culture known throughout the world has had music, and it is a fundamental trait of the human species.

Pinna collects sound waves, and through the external auditory canal, they reach the eardrum. It starts to vibrate, and they are relayed along the chain of middle ear bones.

From the stapes, the third bone, vibrations are transmitted to the spiral-shaped cochlea of the inner ear, filled with fluid that encompasses ten-thousands of tiny hair cells.

They sway with the fluid waves and release chemical neurotransmitters that activate the cochlear nerve, sending tiny electric currents to the auditory cortex – a part of the brain’s temporal lobe. Research on patients with brain injuries versus imaging of healthy individuals has unexpectedly revealed no specialized brain center for music.

The Pitch, timbre, rhythm, and emotional content of music are interpreted by different brain centers. Music has the power to evoke a spectrum of emotions in the listener, both conscious and unconscious. The ‘spine chills’ we get from listening to that specific segment of a musical piece light up our brain’s ‘reward center,’ similar to any other pleasurable stimuli ranging from chocolate to addictive drugs.

Current research suggests that music can enhance the function of neural networks, reduce the heart rate and blood pressure, and provide comfort to patients undergoing surgery.

It’s also used in heart attack and stroke rehabilitation. Music also shown to lower blood level of the stress hormone, adrenaline and the inflammation-promoting cytokine interleukin-6.

A review published in 2010 reported that learning to play an instrument may enhance the brain’s ability to master functions that encompass language skills, attention, and memory. There are interesting contrasts in the brain structure of trained musicians versus non-musicians. Professionally trained musicians have a larger corpus callosum, motor, and auditory regions compared to non-musicians.

That said, we are yet to comprehend whether these variations arise from the intensive musical training commencing from a very young age or whether individuals who choose to study music in early childhood have innately “unusual” brain structure, which predisposes them to music or whether a mixture of both. As studies on music and the brain continues, we can hope for a greater comprehension of the psycho-neuroendocrinology of music. 

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