Music Is the Food of the Brain. Play On.

Music […] gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. ~Plato

I love music. I love listening to it. I love playing it. I love talking about it. I can be a bit snobbish about my preferences for it (but I’m working on that). But, really, music is music, and that makes it great. It can be enjoyed by people of all nations, for there is no language barrier in music. (For example, when I was in Berlin several years ago, I went to see Carmen. If you’re not familiar with that opera, it’s sung in French…which I don’t speak. Being in Berlin, the surtitles were in German…which I can’t read. Needless to say, I was clueless about the plot. But, I was still able to enjoy the music and the performance, both of which were stunning.) It brings people together for a common purpose of making or listening to something beautiful, and there is something so uniquely special in an ensemble of individuals playing together as one. It speaks to our emotions and helps us express them in ways that our words can’t. It’s food for the soul.

It’s also food for the brain.

There is well documented evidence that music benefits our brains. I’m not talking only about the Mozart Effect, a term that refers to the overblown reports of the empirical findings that listening to Mozart can temporarily enhance spatial problem solving. Catching wind of those empirical findings, the media began to make exaggerated claims that Mozart makes you smarter, that you should play Mozart for your child because it will boost his IQ, that Mozart’s music is uniquely cognitively enhancing, and so on and so forth. That is not what the research has found. There are some long-term benefits, but not to the degree that was reported to the populace. (As an aside, this is part of the reason why I’m interested in getting into science journalism. Science data can be cool, but they’re also dicey and need to be interpreted and reported with care; it’s too easy for these findings to get blown out of proportion and/or blatantly misrepresented, as happened with the Mozart Effect.) What has been shown is that spatial reasoning is improved for a short period of time (about 10-15 minutes) after listening to Mozart. But, it doesn’t have to be Mozart. As is summarized in this article (along with the rest of the history of the Mozart Effect and its getting overblown), “Any music that you find engaging will do the same thing, because compared to something like sitting in silence, the brain finds it stimulating.” (More on the effects of studying music can be found here.)

Brain and Music

But what about those long-term effects I mentioned? How does the brain change as a result of music? This video gives one example. Because music is so complex—there are not just melodies and harmonies, but rhythms, too; the orchestrations can be rich and complex; there’s logical progression to chord sequences (it’s like language in that sense, and music has even been shown to activate core language areas of the brain)—it’s not surprising that, as that TED talk notes, scientists have observed that listening to music activates widespread areas of the brain and that “playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout”, activating and interconnecting many areas at once. Like a physical workout, this musical exercise produces greater strength and is associated with changes in brain anatomy and potentially long-term changes in some cognitive skills (e.g., problem-solving, memory efficiency). Mind you, these cognitive gains have often been found to be small and may be confounded by other variables, such as the quality of practice, the motivation to follow-through on becoming a proficient player, etc.; but it still illustrates the benefit of music—a benefit that, as the video notes, seems to be unique to music.

While some of those cognitive gains may indeed be limited to music, the broader neuroscientific and psychological research shows that anything that stimulates your brain—at least to an optimal degree—enhances performance, both immediately and in the long term. That’s part of what I’m looking at in my dissertation. As with any dissertation, it’s a lengthy beast, so I’ll give you the highly distilled version: when people are an at optimal level of stimulation (whether by problem difficulty, baseline level of mental stimulation, and/or external stimuli like caffeine or a shock), they perform optimally on the task at hand and can show better memory for things they saw or heard. However, while the difficulty of that problem may have optimized performance for that problem, performance on the next task may suffer as a result of having previously exerted yourself as you rose to the challenge. So, the take-home message? Make sure that you do the things that are most important when you’re mentally fresh. Bam! Dissertation in four sentences. I think I’m ready for that degree, now.

Looking at the long-term effects of such challenge, other research has shown that extensive, demanding training, though no doubt exhausting in the moment, leads to improvements on that task (duh!), and can even improve other cognitive functions. So, truly, like the video mentioned, mental exercise is just like physical exercise, and mental fitness like physical fitness: when you exert yourself, you will definitely become exhausted, but only temporarily; once you recover, you’ll be stronger than you were before, and that strength can translate to non-practiced skills and domains. And that’s why brain fitness—and brain fitness programs—are so popular nowadays. Our brains—at least adult brains—are not plastic to the point that we can fully recover lost functions due to brain damage, but research is continually showing that our brains are more plastic than we once thought, growing and changing and improving as we use them. But we have to use them wisely; it has to be stimulating activity. So be good to your brain. Get it some exercise. Maybe take it for a walk. Or, perhaps even better, take it to a concert. Or pull out your horn and play once in a while. The music will do it good—it will do you both good.

So, as Shakespeare urges us, play on.

As much as I love that ending (one, I think it’s a strong ending; two, what better way is there to end than with the words of the Bard?), I would be remiss to not touch on the romantic and emotional aspects of music. After all, as a Renaissance man, I do—as I should—appreciate music from all angles. So, having touched on the cognitive aspects and benefits of music, I’ll end with something of the emotional benefits, namely, the unique and special blessing it is to be part of a music ensemble. If you have never had that blessing, I hope you have the opportunity (or something similar), because, in my experience, there is nothing quite like what happens when many come together as one. It’s so easy to get caught up in the beauty of it, as this living, breathing music arises from what had been lifeless ink on a page. And there’s a special sense of belonging and togetherness that accompanies this experience, because you know you’re not doing it on your own; you need the others as much as they need you. Special bonds form between people who make music together. You’ve been a part of something greater than yourselves; you’ve shared bits of your souls with one another; you’ve made music. And that’s beautiful. So, to that end, I decided to try my hand at poetry. I’ve written an ode to the beauty of the music-making process. (If I were any kind of competent at composition, I’d have made it a song, since that would be apt; but, alas, my compositional giftings are limited to the verbal realm, so hopefully this will suffice.)

The Us and I of Music
A Poem by D. R. Meriwether

One individual, part of something bigger.
Needed, and yet needing.
Alone, he is naught; he makes naught.
He needs others to make it complete.
With others, he makes music.
With others, he is beauty.

Together, they are one, yet each still himself—
Nothing lost, but everything gained.
Together, he becomes himself—
Himself as he was meant to be.
For he has found his part in something beyond himself—
Yet something that includes himself.
Something that requires himself—
As he is, who he is.
Alone, a single thread; together, a living tapestry.
Beauty come to life.

A beauty that goes out into the world to be heard,
Not completing its mission until it resonates with a soul,
Giving wordless voice to the ineffable.
A beauty that speaks the language of the human heart,
Knowing the depths of what it is to feel.
A beauty that exults with you, cries with you, strives with you.
A beauty that is humanity.
A beauty that is alive.
A beauty that is to be alive.

Yours truly,
D. R. Meriwether
Renaissance Man


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