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Cambridge University Science Magazine
MUSIC IS EVERYWHERE. Whether you are commuting to work, breaking a sweat in the gym or gearing up for a night out, we all listen to music for different reasons. Perhaps your entire world revolves around music, or maybe it just helps you concentrate. Music brings people together, acting as a powerful catalyst in uniting people or driving revolutionary change. Throughout history, songs have been used to fuel the fire of social change; they carry the voices of the marginalized and the oppressed. On the other hand, they also brings people together in joyous moments of celebration. Our musical experiences are extremely personal, to the extent that they can tune the very instruments of our minds - the neurons of our brain.

Music can be described as organized sound and is deeply ingrained in human culture. Some of the oldest artifacts in the world are musical instruments. A musical experience begins with sound waves entering the ear, striking the eardrum to cause vibrations that are then converted into electrical signals. These signals are relayed to the brainstem, the brain’s relay station for auditory information, before dispersing to activate auditory cortices and many other brain regions. Music is also known to stimulate the same ‘pleasure points’ in the brain as sex, language and food. However, it uses partially unique neural networks.

During our early years, our brains are rapidly growing and forming new connections. After a certain age, the main task of the brain shifts from absorbing information to pruning unnecessary details. It is important to note that different parts of your brain are activated depending on the type of music that you listen to. Researchers at Harvard University have suggested that understanding how these brain areas are selectively or differentially activated by different types of music could be the key to creating more potent music therapy tools.

In a 2018 paper, Samata Sharma, MD, states that music might be able to benefit and improve functionality in patients displaying functional, rather than structural, abnormalities in the brain. This is achieved by creating more efficient patterns of brain activation. She explains that this can be used to treat diverse illnesses including mental health conditions, the physical debilitations of Parkinson’s disease, and even the functional connectivity changes that occur in autism spectrum disorders. For example, classical music has been found to relieve stress and anxiety and improve cognitive function. It has also been used in clinical settings to treat anxiety, depression and chronic pain.

Everyone can make subtle discriminations about music that they know and like. For example, by the age of five, most children develop an internalized rule of what chord progressions are ‘allowed’ or the music that is typical of their culture. They can also detect deviations from standard sequences just as easily as we can detect when an English sentence is distorted. It has been reported that babies respond to music heard in the womb and that music taste is partially based on early listening.

Not only does music have a psychological effect on us, but it also structurally changes our brain. In 1995, a study led by Gottfried Schlaug (now at Harvard Medical School), found that the corpus callosum (the bundle of axons connecting the two hemispheres of the brain) becomes enlarged in people who start practicing music before the age of seven. He also showed that musical training can enhance neural pathways related to planning and co-ordinating movements between two hands. However, whether musical training in later years of life can similarly remodel brain structure is still largely unexplored.

We can also enhance the function of our frontal lobe by simply listening to music. A recent study found that memories associated with music are emotional, persisting even in Alzheimer’s patients. In his book This Is Your Brain On Music Daniel Lervitin states that the reason why love songs garner such favoritism is because musical preferences also have a large social component. He notes that historically, and even more so evolutionarily, music has been tied to social activities. Given how most people have integrated music very closely into their daily lives, it becomes imperative to know about its effects on our brain and everyday experiences.

A fascinating study conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California found that dynamics, register, rhythm and harmony of music were directly related to the listener’s response. They conducted a neuroimaging test on a group of volunteers who listened to three unfamiliar pieces of music, ensuring that there were no elements of memory attached. They also measured physical reactions such as cardiac activity and skin conductance. Finally, participants were also asked to rate their emotional responses on a scale of 1 to 10. The data were input into artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to understand which auditory features people responded to consistently. The group, led by Professor Shrikanth Narayanan, commented ‘Novel multimodal computing approaches help not just illuminate human affective experiences to music at the brain and body level, but in connecting them to how individuals actually feel and articulate their experiences.’ The researchers are now trying to generate music or playlists using AI to simulate different parts of the brain. This has potential uses in therapy, especially for treating depression.

Another area in which AI has been used to advance research in this field is analysis of brain imaging data. fMRI is a commonly used brain imaging technique applied while subjects listen to music. By training machine learning models on fMRI data, researchers can identify patterns of activity associated with different aspects of musical experience, such as emotion, rhythm and harmony.

Researchers are also using computational models and simulations to understand how the brain processes and responds to music. By comparing these models to experimental data, researchers can test and refine their theories of how the brain encodes and interprets musical information. It is only through the advancements in computer technology that we have been able to begin to understand these neural networks.

Despite the promise that AI holds in neuroscience, there are potential drawbacks that need to be considered. For example, as for any computational study, there is a risk of overfitting the machine learning model. This implies that the model becomes unreliable at predicting the outcome of any new data, instead becoming expert at generating results for the data that is already known. There is also the concern that AI models will not be able to capture the subtleties and complexities that come with studying something as vast and diverse as music, giving a limited view on the topic.

It is safe to say that researching the effects of music on the human brain holds great promise in the field of therapy and in understanding the functioning of the brain itself. As Levitin states in his book, ‘By better understanding what music is and where it comes from, we may be better able to understand our motives, fears, desires, memories and even communication in the broadest sense.’ It is a simple case of what music can teach us about our brain, what our brain can teach us about music, and what both can teach us about ourselves.

Article by Yuthika Pillai. Artwork by Marida Ianni-Ravn.