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Music and the Brain – Bri Finally Gets It

I have always loved music. If I didn’t, I would be pretty out of place working for a radio station that plays some of the best music around! But when I was in school, music was only one of a range of my academic interests including math/econ, foreign languages, copy editing and chemistry. It always frustrated me that my friends who were similarly interested in music could also vehemently hate one of those other subjects, because for me, they were fundamentally the same thing. Music, like math or spanish was, to me, a new language – one that had structure and basic rules, but that could be creatively manipulated to express and communicate almost anything. And, like these other “foreign” languages, music was something that simultaneously became more complex and easier to understand the more you immersed yourself in it. Consequently, I felt that music lived in the left brain with logic and sequencing, but – like a beautiful Neruda verse in spanish or the gorgeous geometric make-up of a carbon molecule – was able to use logic and sequencing in order to manipulate the right brain into fascination and appreciation.

I remember an argument I got into with a college friend, an english major who loved music as much as I did but who thought math and economics were invented solely to punish humankind for all of our past, present and future sins – a right brain-dominant individual through and through.

“Music is about creativity and emotions,” she argued, “just as a splash of paint on canvas can, through creative and emotional arrangement, become an artistic masterpiece. Or like a bunch of words, creatively rearranged to play upon the reader’s emotional spectrum, becomes a best-selling piece of fiction. There’s no structure, no rules – just limitless creative expression. Beauty can’t be quantified.”

“Obviously creativity is important,” I replied, “but it is certainly not limitless. There ARE rules – some chords simply don’t work. They sound like crap and will never make a good song, just like a poop-brown colored canvas isn’t what most would consider a work of art and ‘bean already coyote effervescence danced Waterloo’ will never be published as a story. Math requires creativity as well – creative problem solving that conforms to the rules while still thinking outside the box to get an answer no one thought of before to create a theorem that future mathematicians could not live without. It’s a logic puzzle, and the emotion that results is simply one’s natural reaction to being manipulated by hidden sequences of perfect logic. Beauty would not exist without structure.”

As it turns out, we were both right.

Over just the past 5 years, researchers have started using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the effects of music on the human brain. What they found was that music IS a language – without the language centers of our brain, music would be next to impossible to process – but unlike all other types of language, the language of music does more to work with our emotions than with our analytical reason.

In 2008 a study by Dr. Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins University found that the fMRIs of two jazz musicians improvising together were almost  exactly identical to the brains of two individuals engaging in spoken conversation. There was only one major difference: there was no activity in the regions of the brain that process the meaning of language; this musical conversation was solely an interpersonal exchange of structure and intent. Similarly, when one listens to music, the brain responds as if the musician were speaking to it, but without the need to interpret specific meaning.

A more recent 2013 study found that the human brain reacts quite differently to different types, genres and pieces of music, but all reactions seemed to show that music can communicate emotions to the brain even more effectively than words. Every unique song is a neurological map of sorts to its own particular combination of emotional, physical and behavioral responses within our brains. Some (generally more upbeat) songs even prompt listeners’ brains to release specific amounts of dopamine, the chemical associated with pleasure. You can actually watch a video fMRI of a human brain responding to a tango as well as read more about both studies here.

What these studies made me realize is that music is truly unique. It is not solely a language nor an emotional medium. It does not live in the left brain nor the right brain, but simultaneously both and neither. It transcends the lines drawn in academia between the various disciplines. And, in doing so, it has more power than any other force I can think of to bring people together. The pure sense of collective joy experienced at a great concert is like nothing else on earth, and I am proud to be a part of the industry that works to spread that joy over the radio waves to all who tune in.

Digital Content Manager for KBCR, KSNO and KZYR. Colorado College grad and fiddle player with mountain music on my mind!

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