Hats off to the Scientists

Has music finally been de-mystified?

Professors and researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have discovered and proved the existence of an anatomically distinct “music centre” in the brain (1). This has long eluded scientists, leading them and other commentators to dismiss music as “auditory cheesecake“(2), a function that relies on many other brain faculties but not important enough to have evolved on its own. Essentially, music has been perceived as a secondary human function and not significant in human evolution.

This has now been turned on its head (…or its brain, as it were). In fact, this specific circuitry is discrete from fundamentally important capacities like speech. There is much archeological evidence to suggest that music may be even older than speech and that speech may have evolved from music.

“It may be Bach, bluegrass, hip-hop, big band, sitar or Julie Andrews. A listener may relish the sampled genre or revile it. No matter. When a musical passage is played, a distinct set of neurons tucked inside a furrow of a listener’s auditory cortex will fire in response.”(3)

Moreover, this elusive music circuitry is distinct from other neural circuitry. For example, a dustbin lid being dropped or the tyre roar from a car is recognised separately from musical sound and is processed in another part of the auditory cortex. This special music circuitry lights up only when it is exposed to musical sound. And doesn’t matter what genre or style of music. It recognises musical sound as distinct from all others. The scientists have definitively proven this finding. Click here for more information on the original article in the NY Times.

Prior to this discovery, experiments utilising the FMRI Scanner, indicate that playing – or just listening to – music, fires up the neural pathways like nothing else. One commentator suggested it was like fireworks going off in the brain – a kind of “neural symphony”. It stimulates the so-called “pleasure centres” of the brain releasing the happy hormones, dopamine and oxytocin. It even changes the physical size and shape of the brain amongst those who study music from an early age (3). This is highly significant in the case of people living with dementia. The effects on many parts of the brain being stimulated by musical sound are thought to be one of the reasons that the emotional memories connected to music remain intact. It’s a kind of in-built memory back-up system.

One of the most compelling and moving observations we have seen are the experiments with severe dementia sufferers (5). When furnished with headphones and the music they have loved and listened to all their lives, their minds are re-awakened and enlivened in a way that drugs and and other therapies struggle to match. It was this that inspired us to develop the MindHarp™.

So, the doctors and scientists are now telling us music is a significant brain function. This means it has an important evolutionary function. Commentators suggest it is probably something to do with creating social cohesion. This makes sense. Look at the way humans come together at music festivals or in moments of togetherness in choirs and drum circles.

Our mission at MindHarp is to harness the power and significance of musical sound in the same way that the Wright brothers harnessed the air to give us flight or the Buddhists recognised the power of breathing to regulate our minds and emotions.

Through a deep understanding of how music and musical sound affect our emotions and brain function (…also through the medium of air), we want to create a better world.

It feels like we are on the cusp of a breakthrough where music and musical sound can be applied and engaged with in new ways to harness its special powers. These powers can only do good and we aim to be at the forefront of this.

So hats off to the scientists. Their ground-breaking work will generate more interest and funding in this area. Interesting times.


1 Professors Nancy Kanwisher, Josh H. McDermott and their postdoctoral colleague Sam Norman-Haignere

2 Steven Pinker

New Ways Into the Brain’s ‘Music Room’; Natalie Angier, New York Times, 08/02/2016

4 Daniel J Levitin, The Music Instinct

5 Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory: See https://musicandmemory.org