Lots of things affect us as kids, things that we rarely realize the full impact of. I’ve mentioned one such thing in previous columns: The Unthought Known. Recently though, some interesting neuroscience research points out something that I’m sure impacted my sisters and me that we didn’t realize was so hugely beneficial at the time: our mother loved classical music. It lives in memory mostly as an embarrassment – ours was the only apartment in the housing projects blaring the musical creations of Brahms, Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

Mozart Off the Chart

mozartWhile the research supporting The Mozart Effect has been called into question by a number of respected scientists – mostly for being a poorly designed study – neuroscientists have since shown that listening to music actually does turn out to change the brain in positive ways. For example, Glenn Schellenberg, at the University of Toronto, has demonstrated that listening to music over the long term appears to increase the density of neural connections in the primary auditory cortex. Harvard neuroscientist Gottfried Schlaug and his colleagues have shown that the tissue that connects the two halves of the brain (corpus callosum) contain a much greater number of connecting fibers in musicians versus nonmusicians, especially for musicians who began their training early. As a general rule, more connections make for more processing power.

Professor and record producer, Daniel J. Levitin runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University. In his fascinating book, This is Your Brain in Music, Levitin provides numerous accounts of how music actually works to increase the size of our cerebellums and increases the concentration of gray matter in the brain (Gray matter is believed to be primarily responsible for information processing, while white matter is primarily responsible for information transmission).  As another general rule, when it comes to organized human brains, bigger equals better.

Music therapy, too, has been shown to be effective treatment for many psychological and physical challenges. For many years I used music to help me deal with my own grief and loss – Jackson Browne’s national grief anthem, For a Dancer, for example. As a direct consequence of this research, for many of the classes I teach, I try to make music an integral part of the curriculum.

Unchained Melodies

brain-musicAll of this though, is but a lead-in to some very interesting research recently published in, of all places, the Department of Homeland Security! What brain scientists have been able to do is take down the notes and write the unique musical score generated by individual human brains – we all have our own individual neural sonata constantly playing inside our heads! Here’s an excerpt from the research article:

If the brain “composes” the music, the first job of scientists is to take down the notes. Each recording is converted into two unique musical compositions designed to trigger the body’s natural responses, for example, by improving productivity while at work, or helping adjust to constantly changing work hours. The compositions are clinically shown to promote one of two mental states in each individual: relaxation – for reduced stress and improved sleep; and alertness – for improved concentration and decision-making.

Each 2–6 minute track is a composition performed on a single instrument, usually a piano. The relaxation track may sound like a “melodic, subdued Chopin sonata,” while the alertness track may have “more of a Mozart sound,” according to (Robert) Burns. (It seems there’s a classical genius—or maybe two genii—in all of us.) Listen to an example of an instrumental alert track.

After their brain waves are set to music, each person is given a specific listening schedule, such as once an hour for four hours each day, personalized to their work environment and needs. After an extended length of time, people may be able to listen to the music more sporadically. If used properly, the music can boost productivity and energy levels, or trigger a body’s natural responses to stress. A selected group of firefighters will be the first emergency responders taking part in the project.

I don’t think it’s an accident that our individual brains produce something akin to classical music. And I have little doubt but that our own singular melodies could turn out to be a tremendous boon to overstressed and overworked parents, teachers, clergy, policeman and firefighters. Not to mention bankers, politicians and Wall Street finance ministers. Rock on with your bad neuro-solo self!