Music is to the brain as Einstein is to genius
by Thom Bush
on 15 March 2015
violin_and_music

The sweet sound of music really does awaken parts of your brain that enhance learning, which means that when we listen to music, we aren’t just simply processing sound, like background noise or the sound of a car engine. Music is more meaningful to our brains than just any sound: It's repetitive, melodious, organized.

For all the effects music is thought to have on the brain, classical music seems to fall in a grey area. One side seems to think it makes children smarter, while others file this notion under the psychological myths we fall for. A new Finnish study aims to clarify this classic connection. “Although brain imaging studies have demonstrated that listening to music alters human brain structure and function, the molecular mechanisms mediating those effects remain unknown,” researchers wrote. “With the advent of genomics and bioinformatics approaches, these effects of music can now be studied in a more detailed fashion.”

Case and point: Researchers performed genome-wide transcriptional profiling from the peripheral blood of participants after they listened to classical music — and again without music exposure. In layman’s terms, researchers studied music’s effects on a molecular level, something they cited prior research hasn’t done before. They had one group of participants listen to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K.216 for 20 minutes, and another didn’t listen to any music. Instead, they were advised to avoid listening to music the day before the study and spent their session either talking to other participants, reading a magazine, or walking outside.

The results showed listening to classical music enhanced activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion (the feel good hormone), and “transport synaptic function, learning and memory.” One of the most up-regulated genes was synuclein-alpha (SNCA), which is a known risk gene for Parkinson’s disease.  This gene is also how songbirds learn songs. "The up-regulation of several genes that are known to be responsible for song learning and singing in songbirds suggest a shared evolutionary background of sound perception between vocalizing birds and humans," Dr. Irma Järvelä, lead study author, said in a press release.


While classical music worked to regulate some genes, it “down-regulated” others associated with neuron-degeneration — the process of neurons losing their structure or function — “suggesting the importance of familiarity and experience in mediating music-induced effects.” Music therapy continues to be an area of scientific interest. Prior research has shown hip-hop lyrics offer individuals suffering from cognitive illnesses a fresh way of thinking, while creating, singing, moving, and/or listening to music reduced symptoms in depressed children and adolescents.

Bonus: This form of therapy helped young cancer patients cope with their illness, and jazz music worked to reduce anxiety in patients undergoing surgery.


Source: Kanduri C, et al. The effect of listening to music on human transcriptome. PeerJ. 2015.