Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2013 | In Class

Music on the Brain

By Shelbi Thomas
Science sheds light on the power of music to stir emotions and touch lives.

The cacophony of thousands of individual conversations reverberates throughout Kinnick Stadium before the start of every football game. But as soon as the first note of AC/DC's "Back in Black" blares from the stadium's sound system, the crowd unites in cheers and an unstoppable energy that proclaims: We are one. We are Hawkeyes. And we are here to win this game.

The Hawkeye Marching Band serves as the guardian of school spirit, revving up the crowd with beloved tunes played at familiar intervals throughout the game: the "Iowa Fight Song" after every goal, "Hey Jude" following the third quarter, and "In Heaven There Is No Beer" to celebrate a home team victory. These musical cues have become longstanding traditions that rally the fans behind the team and create an emotional high fed by the pulsating rhythm. Game day wouldn't be the same without song.

"The point of music is to be a mood-enhancer," says UI associate music professor Anthony Arnone, who teaches a first-year seminar called "Music and the Mind" that uncovers the rational, scientific reasons behind such visceral reactions.

Music has long been known to help us express, explore, and cope with a diverse range of emotions. By replaying the song she danced to on her wedding day, a woman can relive the joy of that special occasion. A sentimental country song may stir sadness in a betrayed lover. The Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" revs up the excitement at Hawkeye football games, while the hymn "Amazing Grace" brings comfort to mourners at funerals with its timeless words of faith and hope.

Now, scientists, researchers, and musicians, like Robert Jourdain, author of the UI course's primary textbook, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination, are starting to learn more about what exactly happens in our brains when we hear songs and compositions. MRI scans show different parts of the brain "lighting up" in response to notes, while chemicals like dopamine are released and trigger a pleasure response.

At its most fundamental level, music is simply a collection of sound waves that vibrate against our ear drums. When the brain interprets those sounds—via regions associated with memory, planning, attention, and movements, as well as auditory processing—they transform into a rich, complex, and inherently personal experience.

The brain automatically searches for patterns in music, making predictions on what notes it will hear next based on sounds it's heard in the past. "Emotions happen when you expect one thing and get another; they take you out of mid-range," says Arnone. "Music is like that, too; it takes you in a certain direction and then surprises you."

To help his students understand how music works, Arnone starts with the basics: melody, harmony, timbre, and rhythm. Students represent a variety of majors and musical backgrounds, but most are already familiar with the concept of melody, the leading notes in the song. They're often surprised to learn that they can identify a song solely by its harmony—the backbone, which includes pitches and chords that add momentum and fullness to the piece.

Timbre refers to tonal quality (which instruments will play and how many, and whether the song will be unplugged or hard rock), while rhythm adds driving, repetitive energy. Arnone uses the example of Travie McCoy's 2010 hip-hop song, "Billionaire," to show how a subtle change in any one of these elements can have a dramatic effect. As the rhythm picks up in the second half of that song, it adds the vigor and catchy beat that made it a top 40 hit.

"The point of music is to be a mood-enhancer."
-Anthony Arnone

Patterns also help distinguish between music and noise. Random pounding on a piano is difficult for the brain to process, unlike an organized pitch that it can easily follow and predict. Of course, what's music to some people's ears is an unpleasant racket to others. That's because our culture and experiences also affect our musical tastes.

Because musical preferences are developed during the teenage years, favorite songs often remind people of their high school days, loved ones, or another formative time in their lives. The emotions of the moment add to the meaning of the song.

The highly personal nature of music also means that the same concert can elicit many different reactions. The conductor may feel the orchestra had an off-night, while audience members believe they've attended the most meaningful concert of their lives. One listener may be moved to tears, while another may look at his watch the whole time.

Despite such differences in the way people respond, Arnone's students soon realize that music is a universal language capable of conveying emotional nuances that words could never express. As a cellist, Arnone has traveled the world to perform with musicians who don't share a common language. Music has always been able to break down communication barriers.

Researchers think that music's influence on the brain can help people overcome more severe hurdles. Music therapists use song to help people manage stress and pain, communicate and express feelings, improve memory, and recover from physical setbacks. After U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords suffered a critical gunshot wound to the head in 2011, she lost her ability to speak. Even though the language pathways in her brain's left hemisphere were damaged from the shooting, therapists used music to help her train her brain to use another path.

While language ability mostly comes from the left side of the brain, music activates visual, motor, and coordination areas on both sides, as well as regions involved in memory and emotion. By adding melody and rhythm to her words through favorite songs like "American Pie" and "Brown-Eyed Girl," Giffords was able to gradually regain her speech.

Given such transformative and healing power, it's no wonder people have always been drawn to music. Arnone's class traces its impact back to the beginning of humankind, where it was first used as a form of communication that allowed people to send messages across long distances via drums and flute-like instruments. Over time, composers began to notate music, enabling the sounds to be replicated across the world.

The invention of the phonograph in 1877 allowed music to be recorded, while radio and TV later brought it to mass audiences. Most recently, iPods and the Internet have made favorite songs available anywhere, on-demand. While fans of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 7" used to have to find a venue nearby where it was being played live, today's listeners can pull up several versions on their computers, iPods, or cell phones in seconds. The popularity of videos mean that an artist's looks and abilities as an entertainer are just as critical to success as musical talent. In fact, auto-tune technology can correct a musician's pitch on a recording. Fans only discover—often in a disappointing way—what their favorite singer really sounds like when they attend a live concert.

Arnone fears that the experience of attending a live performance may be lost in the Internet age. So, he mandates that his students go to at least one chamber concert during the semester and write down their observations. For many, it's their first time attending a classical music performance. "Some of the students say they didn't expect to like it at all," says Arnone, "but now they go to help unwind and relax before finals."

Despite all the changes it's undergone over the years, music remains a potent force in our lives. It's not key to humankind's survival as a species, yet Arnone's students agree—it's hard to imagine a world without music.