Music Has Powerful (and Visible) Effects on the Brain
Especially when you’re listening to a favorite song
It doesn’t matter if it’s Bach, the Beatles, Brad Paisley or Bruno Mars. Your favorite music likely triggers a similar type of activity in your brain as other people’s favorites do in theirs.
That’s one of the things Jonathan Burdette, M.D., has found in researching music’s effects on the brain.
“Music is primal. It affects all of us, but in very personal, unique ways,” said Burdette, a neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “Your interaction with music is different than mine, but it’s still powerful.
“Your brain has a reaction when you like or don’t like something, including music. We’ve been able to take some baby steps into seeing that, and ‘dislike’ looks different than ‘like’ and much different than ‘favorite.’”
To study how music preferences might affect functional brain connectivity – the interactions among separate areas of the brain – Burdette and his fellow investigators used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which depicts brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. Scans were made of 21 people while they listened to music they said they most liked and disliked from among five genres (classical, country, rap, rock and Chinese opera) and to a song or piece of music they had previously named as their personal favorite.
The researchers also found that listening to favorite songs altered the connectivity between auditory brain areas and a region responsible for memory and social emotion consolidation.
Not surprising to Burdette was the extent of the connectivity seen in the participants’ brains when they were listening to their favorite tunes.
“There are probably some features in music that make you feel a certain way, but it’s your experience with it that is even more important,” said Burdette, who also is professor of radiology and vice chairman of research at Wake Forest School of Medicine. “Your associations with certain music involve many different parts of the brain, and they’re very strong. In some cases, you might not even like the particular song, but you like the memories or feelings that you associate with it.”
In countries such as Germany, Burdette noted, music therapy is commonly an integral part of the rehabilitation process for people who have had strokes, brain surgery or traumatic brain injuries.
“You can actually see the power of music,” Burdette said. “People who were just sitting there, not engaged in anything, light up when they start hearing music from when they were 25. It’s fantastic. What else can do that? I can’t think of anything other than music.”