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Music and the Human Brain

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Music is one of humanity’s oldest forms of self-expression, considered to be a cultural universal. It has been found in every society, past and present, dating back over 50,000 years ago during the time of the Neanderthals.

According to The Harvard Gazette, scientists have discovered a part of our brain that makes us react to music in a similar way that we react to other enjoyable stimuli. Scientists claim that this response is evidence that music is wired into the brain and that ‘musicians violate them at the risk of making their audiences squirm.’

“A human brain is divided into two hemispheres, and the right hemisphere has been traditionally identified as the seat of music appreciation,” the article states. “However, no one has found a ‘music center’ there or anywhere else.”

Musician, songwriter, and neuroscientist at the Harvard Medical School Mark Jude Tramo says that music is in our genes. He believes that studying music can be beneficial in many ways, including personal improvement and learning.

Kay Shelemay, professor of music at Harvard, agrees with Tramo. She discusses how humans come into the world with an ‘innate capability for music’ already established. 

 “At a very early age, this capability is shaped by the music system of the culture in which a child is raised,” Shelemay says. “That culture affects the construction of instruments, the way people sound when they sing, and even the way they hear sound. By combining research on what goes on in the brain with a cultural understanding of music, I expect we’ll learn a lot more than we would by either approach alone.”

Neuroscientist Kiminobu Sugaya and world-renowned violinist Ayako Yonetani, professors at the University of Central Florida, teach a top-rated course in The Burnett Honors College called “Music and the Brain.” According to Pegasus, the university’s magazine, the two professors discuss how each part of the brain responds to music, its effects on brain function and human behavior, and its benefits for people with neurodegenerative diseases. 

“Usually in the late stages, Alzheimer’s patients are unresponsive,” Sugaya says. “But once you put in the headphones that play [their favorite] music, their eyes light up. They start moving and sometimes singing. The effect lasts maybe 10 minutes or so even after you turn off the music.”

Pegasus states that music can: change your ability to perceive time, tap into primal fear, reduce seizures, make you a better communicator, make you stronger, boost your immune system, assist in repairing brain damage, make you smarter, evoke memories, and help Parkinson’s patients.

As for the argument towards which type of music is the best, the two UFC professors say that it all depends on the person. A popular belief that researchers backed for a while was a phenomenon known as the Mozart Effect. This phenomenon covers the hypothesis that classical music increased brain activity while also improving people’s intelligence. Sugaya and Yonetani disagree, saying that it isn’t always accurate. 

“If you play someone’s favorite music, different parts of the brain light up,” Sugaya explains. “That means memories associated with music are emotional memories, which never fade out — even in Alzheimer’s patients.”

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