Tag Archives: music cognition

Music and the brain

Dr. VanHandel,
I had a few questions that I was thinking of bringing up, so whenever you have the chance to look them over and answer them, that would be amazing.

1. Do different styles of music affect the brain in different ways?
     a. How so/why?
2. What studies, if any, have you conducted in your field?
     a. How did you conduct it/them?
     b. If you haven’t conducted any yourself, which have you researched and what were the overall conclusions?
3. Is there an aspect of music (tempo, meter, mode, rhythm, etc.) that most directly correlates to changes in the brain?
     a. If so, how do the effects of that aspect of music differ from other aspects?

-Eliza

Hi Eliza;

Here are some quick answers to your questions:

1. Do different styes of music affect the brain in different ways?
a. How so/why?

As far as I know, there isn’t any reliable evidence that different styles of music affect the brain differently in any large way. There are some studies that supposedly showed that if you listened to Mozart while you studied, you would learn the material better, or that if you listened to specific pieces of classical music that you would get smarter. Those studies have been largely disproved, though.

One thing that has been shown, though, is that cultures whose music is more complicated rhythmically — with meters like 7/8 or 11/8 — are better able to process and understand those complex rhythmic patterns. That’s probably a result of familiarity and enculturation (just hearing it more) but there’s also a chance that it has to do with changes in the brain from listening to that music.

So there isn’t a “better” type of music to listen to, or a “right” music to study to, or anything — although some studies have shown that if you’re listening to music when you study, it’s better to listen to music without words, since music with words might compete with material you’re trying to learn.

2. What studies, if any, have you conducted in your field?
a. How did you conduct it/them?
b. If you haven’t conducted any yourself, which have you researched and what were the overall conclusions?

This is a really big question, and it’s one I can’t really answer since I’ve read hundreds of studies and run dozens of studies. What I’m working on right now is trying to understand what the musical cues are for tempo. Imagine you’re given a piece of music to sing, and you’re asked to perform it, but it doesn’t have any tempo indication so you don’t know whether it’s supposed to go fast or slow. The question I’m trying to figure out right now is, how would you figure that out? You’d probably look at the music and listen to it, and make a decision based on some aspects of the music, but what aspects? Would the melody give you some hints? Would the rhythm? Would the harmony? Do all three of them work together to help you decide? Is one of them more important than the others?

So I’m running a series of experiments right now where we have people listen to different melodies and change the tempo of the melody until it “sounds right” to them. From that, we can tell what the people are reacting to, and what characteristics have the biggest effect on what tempo people choose for melodies. For example, what we’re finding is that if people hear a melody that has a lot of contour changes — if it changes direction a lot — people want those melodies to go more slowly than melodies that don’t have a lot of contour changes.

3. Is there an aspect of music (tempo, meter, mode, rhythm, etc.) that most directly correlates to changes in the brain?
a. If so, how do the effects of that aspect of music differ from other aspects?

I think this is something we’re still trying to figure out. One thing we know is that musicians tend to have an advantage in what’s called verbal working memory over non-musicians; it probably has something to do with needing to keep and rehearse information (musical phrases, melodies, etc.) in our minds as we’re performing in order to make the music make sense in terms of phrasing and structure. And we know that musicians tend to have better hand/eye coordination than non-musicians. But the question you’re asking is pretty broad, and it’s one that people are spending their entire careers on researching!

I hope this helps you a little bit! You’re asking some great questions — they’re just too big to answer in a short period of time! If you’re interested in music cognition, there’s a couple of great books I can recommend — one is “This is Your Brain on Music” by Dan Levitin, and one is “The Psychology of Music: A Very Short Introduction” by Elizabeth Margulis. Both are great resources to read about the types of research going on in the field of music psychology/cognition, and would probably give you some ideas of the types of research going on. And if it’s something you’re really interested in, look for universities that have music cognition programs!

Best,
Dr. Van

Stairway to Heaven

Hello, 
I found your profile on a expert finder website and I was wondering if you can help me understand something. I am a high school senior in [state] and Stairway to Heaven is my favorite song of all time and I can’t quite describe why. It is something about the way the notes and music is composed that sound so amazing to me. I was hoping you could help me understand the technical musical theory explanation of why this song is so pleasing to the brain. 
Thank you very much,

-Grace

Hi Grace;
There’s a lot going on in your question, and there’s a lot going on in Stairway to Heaven — too much for me to explain all of the “technical music theory” elements of what’s going on in the song. But I can try to explain one thing about it, and that is the concept of tension and release, which works on multiple levels throughout the song.

On a small scale, think about the vocal melody for the opening line: “There’s a lady who’s sure, all that glitters is gold.” There are two notes that set the word “gold,” and the first one doesn’t belong to the chord that the rest of the instruments are playing. It is what’s called a dissonant note — it doesn’t fit, so it creates tension, and it wants to resolve to something that does fit. The resolution to the following note on the word “gold” provides that resolution, which provides a sense of release. So just on one word in the melody, we have a sense of tension and release on a very small scale. That happens over and over again throughout the song; there will be small tension moments leading to release moments.

Then, if you think about how the song builds and builds and builds over the course of the song, adding instruments and getting louder, that’s also building up tension on a bigger scale. And we eventually get the release at the end of the song. 
So the simple concept of tension and release have a lot to do with it, and that’s happening at both the small scale and large scale throughout the music. There’s obviously a lot more going on, but that’s a start to think about!

If you’re interested in this type of thing, you might enjoy a book by a friend of mine named Dan Levitin called “This is Your Brain on Music.” It has a lot of information about how we listen to music, why we like the music we do, and what’s going on in our brains when we listen to music. The book is available relatively cheap (like $8 or so) in paperback, and it’s a really fun and entertaining read. It’s a great introduction to a field called “music cognition,” which is what I do, which focuses on how we understand and process sound and music. It’s a big field, and there’s a lot of research going on, so you’re asking great questions that others are really curious about as well!

I hope this helps a little bit!
Dr. Van