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How your brain may change on different types of music

Musical training shapes brain anatomy and also affects function.

Musical training shapes brain anatomy and affects function, says a new study presented in 2013 in San Diego, California at Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the world's largest source of emerging news about brain science and health. The new findings show that training before age 7 has bigger impact on brain anatomy; improvisation can rewire brain.


New findings show that extensive musical training affects the structure and function of different brain regions, how those regions communicate during the creation of music, and how the brain interprets and integrates sensory information.

These insights suggest potential new roles for musical training including fostering plasticity in the brain, an alternative tool in education, and treating a range of learning disabilities.


New findings show that:


  • Long-term high level musical training has a broader impact than previously thought. Researchers found that musicians have an enhanced ability to integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight (Julie Roy, abstract 550.13, see attached summary).
  • The age at which musical training begins affects brain anatomy as an adult; beginning training before the age of seven has the greatest impact (Yunxin Wang, abstract 765.07 see attached summary).
  • Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, leading to less reliance on working memory and more extensive connectivity within the brain (Ana Pinho, MS, abstract 122.13, see attached summary).

Some of the brain changes that occur with musical training reflect the automation of task (much as one would recite a multiplication table) and the acquisition of highly specific sensorimotor and cognitive skills required for various aspects of musical expertise.


"Playing a musical instrument is a multisensory and motor experience that creates emotions and motions — from finger tapping to dancing — and engages pleasure and reward systems in the brain. It has the potential to change brain function and structure when done over a long period of time," explains press conference moderator Gottfried Schlaug, MD, PhD, of Harvard Medical School/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, an expert on music, neuroimaging and brain plasticity, according to the November 12, 2013 news release, Musical training shapes brain anatomy and affects function. "As findings show, intense musical training generates new processes within the brain, at different stages of life, and with a range of impacts on creativity, cognition, and learning."

The National Institutes of Health, as well as private and philanthropic organizations supported the research. Find more information about music, learning, and brain development at BrainFacts.org.


Also in another presentation on autism at the Neuroscience 2013 meeting, new information includes reports on the early promise of a broad variety of autism treatments. The findings are preliminary and involve small human studies or testing with various animal models of autism. As such, these therapies are at the earliest stages of development. You may wish to check out the site, "Day 3 at Neuroscience 2013: Spotlight on Experimental Autism Treatments."


And a presentation at the 2013 meeting on exercise during pregnancy, "Study: Moderate Exercise during Pregnancy Promotes Newborn Brain Development," showed how as little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times per week during pregnancy enhances a newborn’s brain development, according to a small study presented at the meeting "Neuroscience 2013," in San Diego. “While animal studies have shown similar results, this is the first randomized controlled trial in humans to measure the impact of exercise during pregnancy on the newborn’s brain,” says neuropsychologist Dave Ellemberg, of the University of Montreal. Dr. Ellemberg is the study's senior author, according to that article. You can check out the findings of the various studies presented  in the past at such sites as Day 3 at Neuroscience 2013: Spotlight on Experimental Autism Treatments, Neuroscience 2013: Q&A with NIMH Chief Tom Insel, or Autism Speaks at Neuroscience 2013.


Music has an effect on the brain.  You may wish to listen to NPR show All Things Considered dated Sept 10, 2014. Click on the link and scroll down to audio number 8,  "This is your Brain on Music."


Can listening to 'sad' music trigger positive emotions and make you feel happier?

In 2013, Japanese scientists explained how listening to sad music can actually trigger positive emotions. The study is "Sad music induces pleasant emotion." And it's published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. You can check out the study's abstract.

Also, you may wish to check out the article, "Study: You Listen to That Sad Song Because It Makes You Happy."


Researchers found that the music-art-literature-motivated sadness is not the same kind of sadness that results from a tragic event. If the music is in minor key and makes you feel sad, as if your guts are being ripped out, some researchers say that type of emotional pulling caused by the melody actually can feel pleasurable or even relaxing to some. "If we suffer from unpleasant emotion evoked through daily life, sad music might be helpful to alleviate negative emotion," the scientists wrote.


Music also can have a calming effect


Certain songs can distract us while also decreasing our levels of stress hormones. But what songs are the most soothing? to see a list of popular songs, check out the September 5, 2013 Huffington Post article, "Stress Relief Songs: Music That Reduces Anxiety."


Sad music might actually evoke positive emotions reveals a new study by Japanese researchers published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology. The findings help to explain why people enjoy listening to sad music, say Ai Kawakami and colleagues from Tokyo University of the Arts and the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Japan, says the July 11, 2013 news release, "Why do we enjoy listening to sad music?"


Kawakami and colleagues asked 44 volunteers, including both musicians and non-specialists, to listen to two pieces of sad music and one piece of happy music. Each participant was required to use a set of keywords to rate both their perception of the music and their own emotional state.


The sad pieces of music included Glinka's "La Séparation" in F minor and Blumenfeld's Etude "Sur Mer" in G minor. The happy music piece was Granados's Allegro de Concierto in G major. To control for the "happy" effect of major key, they also played the minor-key pieces in major key, and vice versa.


The researchers explained that sad music evoked contradictory emotions because the participants of the study tended to feel sad music to be more tragic, less romantic, and less blithe than they felt themselves while listening to it.


"In general, sad music induces sadness in listeners, and sadness is regarded as an unpleasant emotion.


If sad music actually evokes only unpleasant emotion, we would not listen to it," the researchers wrote in the study. "Music that is perceived as sad actually induces romantic emotion as well as sad emotion. And people, regardless of their musical training, experience this ambivalent emotion to listen to the sad music," added the researchers, according to the July 11, 2013 news release, "Why do we enjoy listening to sad music?"Why do we enjoy listening to sad music?"


Also, unlike sadness in daily life, sadness experienced through art actually feels pleasant, possibly because the latter does not pose an actual threat to our safety. This could help people to deal with their negative emotions in daily life, concluded the authors.


"Emotion experienced by music has no direct danger or harm unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life. Therefore, we can even enjoy unpleasant emotion such as sadness. If we suffer from unpleasant emotion evoked through daily life, sad music might be helpful to alleviate negative emotion," they added.