When I originally started this article, it was destined to be ‘How to Write a Hit Single’; an article about how our brains enjoy specific chords, certain structures and a modicum of unpredictability in a song. As I did my research and dug a little deeper into the world of music and its effects on the brain, I found that the two seem to be inextricably linked.

I’m sure everyone has heard of the Mozart Effect and the phenomenon it sparked; that by exposing young and unborn children to the music of Mozart it would make them smarter, sharper and happier. However that perception is above and beyond the reality of the original 1993 study conducted by Frances H. Rasucher and colleagues. Their study showed that exposure to Mozart’s music maytemporarily improve spatial-temporal awareness, which is a very specific type ability. Many studies have been done since on this subject, the majority of them refuting the “Mozart will make you smarter” attitude that this 1993 study spawned.

Music and Learning

A recent study conducted by graduate students at the University of Western Ontario showed that using music and video clips to lift mood led to changes in the subject’s ability to solve problems. They tested out many videos and music clips to find which ones affected people in a happy, sad or neutral way then played these to their volunteers – the happiest video was that of a laughing baby. This gave a control group (with neutral mood), a group of low mood or ‘sad’ volunteers and a group of high mood or ‘happy’ volunteers. The volunteers whose mood was ‘happy’ solved the problems faster than the two other groups, basically their learning to adapt to the problem set to them was improved by their ability to think more creatively. Amy Nadler, who conducted the study with her colleagues, is of the opinion that this is why some people watch funny videos at their desk when they should be working or when procrastinating from important tasks, “I think people are unconsciously trying to put themselves in a positive mood”1.

Music and Wellbeing

A research project completed at the end of 2010 by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) looked at how music affected people with emotional or physical pain. Conducted by Dr Donald Knox, an audio engineer and Dr Raymond McDonald, a Professor of Music Psychology, they aim to eventually classify music depending on how it would help patients, for example by having music that would motivate an individual, fulfil their emotional needs or help alleviate physical pain. One of their eventual goals is to create a ‘prescription’-style database that would allow a new kind of music therapy. Another study Dr Raymond was also involved in, located in Greece, let kidney dialysis patients listen to their favourite music whilst in dialysis and found that they felt less pain and less stress. This was in comparison to another group who didn’t listen to music. As opposed to Dr Raymond’s study in Greece, the study at GCU looks at previously unheard contemporary-style music to eliminate participant’s own emotional ties to a piece of music or song. This GCU research looked at the more obvious musical components of a song as well as at something deeper; “One of the things we are really interested in is pitch or the contour of a melody, the range of the tone in the music, as well as finer measures of rhythm patterns”2, said Dr Knox on the subject. Their research could be ground breaking, especially in the treatment of mental illnesses or pain management.

Music and Language

Can music help us learn a language?

When learning a new language, or a first language, one of the first main steps is to learn to recognise where one word stops and another begins. Native speakers generally don’t pause between words, which can make it hard for a non-native speaker, or child, to pick up what is being said. A study done by French academic Daniele Schӧn looked at how associating syllables with music might help individuals recognise words more easily. The research team used 6 made-up words (all of a three syllable construction, some with similar sounds) and made the participants listen to a list of these words being dictated to them and asked them to identify what the words were, i.e. to sort through the mess of syllables they could hear and pinpoint where words stopped and started. When each syllable was then associated with a musical note – like ‘ba’ paired with C or ‘my’ paired with D – the participants were more successful at identifying the word boundaries than when the words were dictated to them without the addition of music. The researchers then associated musical notes at random to the syllables and discovered that the participants still performed better than without the addition of music.

Research conducted in America followed two primary school classes over the period of a standard 10-month school year. Both schools were in the same geographic area and the children were all of a similar demographic. Their reading skills were tested at the beginning and end of this 10 month period, with all children scoring near-identical results in the first test. During the consequent school year, one class of children (Class A) had formal piano lessons whereas the other class (Class B) had no general or instrumental music tuition in or outside of school. The results of the second literacy test showed that Class A had much better scores than Class B, implying that the musical tuition given to Class A had aided their acquisition of language. This research did however come under some scrutiny when it was observed that when the original literacy tests were taken, Class A and Class B scored very similarly yet Class A had already been receiving musical tuition for a few years. Shouldn’t Class A have already been ahead of Class B? Maybe not, this could indicate that perhaps it is also important to consider when musical tuition is given, i.e. developmental stage of the child maybe a factor into the efficacy of this musical theory.

Whichever way you analyse it, music and the mind are linked, be it through learning, wellbeing, language or otherwise. We can all say that we know a song or piece of music that provokes emotion in us, positive or negative, or one that holds a place in our heart. For us to be able to utilise the full power of music more research needs to be done, so we can see exactly how and where the mind meets music; where Art meets Science.

Kate Kilgour

1: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/a-positive-mood-allows-your-brain-to-think-more-creatively.html#hide

2:http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/newsevents/videoaudio/pioneer/transcripts/Pages/musiconprescription.aspx

Image: Supplied.