Sciences - Other

How Music Affects the Brain

Kelsey Winters's image for:
"How Music Affects the Brain"
Image by: 

The combination of instruments, singing, and dancing, was an important part of the Ancient Greek society. Almost every tradition, ceremony, religious practice, feast, and celebration involved music. However, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle realized just how powerful music was and how dangerous it could be. They theorized that music could change a person's soul, thus altering their mood and character.

This article is about the connection between music and emotion, and why the Greeks believed music to be so powerful. A lot of emphasis is put on the Greek's ethical beliefs of why music is powerful. They believed that music was a gateway to a person's soul because music was an expression of the soul and thus had a connection with it.

However, by examining the human brain and its physiological aspects, it can be seen that there is a connection between the brain and emotions, meaning music may not have as much power as the Greeks believed. Different sounds and tonal qualities can trigger different parts of the brain, sometimes triggering the release of hormones into the body. The release of these hormones can drastically change a person's mood. So, in actuality, music may not have as much of an influence on emotions as the human brain and its natural responses does.

The ethical effects of music were widely debated in Ancient Greece because music was believed to hold the power to alter a person's soul. Music in the Ancient Greek society consisted of sung words or poetry, an instrumental melody, and choreography. Because music integrated those three aspects, it was thought to have an ethical power to make deliberate and almost supernatural statements.

The Greeks integrated music into almost all aspects of society, especially for rituals, traditions, and religious practices. During the dithyramb, or the time of worshipping the god Dionysus, instruments were played, dances were choreographed, and praises were sung. Marriage ceremonies involved singing lyric poetry. The procession following the groom taking his bride to their house consisted of dancers and instrumentalists, and they sang more lyric poetry. The wedding reception (and other types of banquets and feasts) required each guest to sing something, whether it be a hymn, poetry, advice, commentary, or a continuation of the previous guest's song. Also, music was used as an educational tool. All the types of lyric poetry were written to be taught. Religious paeans, sung prayers, were meant to reveal the gods and to teach devotion. Epic poems praised and taught heroism and action.

Many famous philosophers observed and theorized about the ethical values of music. Pythagoras, who was said to have discovered the relationship of musical notes and organized them into scales, believed that music was the expression of a person's soul. Philolaus of Tarentum followed Pythagoras' teachings. Philolaus taught that the soul was a harmony of sorts, created by combining opposites. These opposites were the brain and the heart. The soul was thought to be a combination of the two. It was not purely knowledge, basing its responses on facts and information, but at the same time, it was not all emotion, basing itself on feelings. Philolaus thought music was also a combination, and a potentially dangerous one at that. Music was the combining of both emotion and melodic truths. Every person has adapted to the tonal rules of their society. When they hear music that follows these rules, they generally find it appealing and uplifting. When they hear music that breaks these rules, however, they generally find it unsettling and unappealing. Since music is both fact and emotion, and the human soul is also both fact and emotion, they are directly related and can affect each other.

Damon was an Athenian philosopher of the late 5th century. He theorized that beautiful music and music that portrayed ethical values would create a beautiful and ethical soul, but harmful music would form a bad soul. Therefore, he believed music should embody courage, moderation, and justice.

Plato studied Damon's theories and expanded some ideas, but disagreed with others. Plato thought that the rhythm and melody of a song were what grasped the inner soul. This penetration of the soul occurred because the imitation in music is similar to the imitation in the soul, much like what Philolaus theorized about the similar combinations of soul and music. This means the soul can begin to develop the qualities the music is portraying. Plato realized how powerful music could be, and he wanted to set restrictions to ensure that music would be an ethical force. He wanted to restrict epic poetry to not lead to fear of death, which would prevent the development of courage, to not portray great men weeping, and to not represent the gods as sorrowful. He also wanted to limit the use of scales (also called modes) to only allow the Dorian scale and the Phrygian scale. He believed these modes showed temperance and courage, but the other scales were too relaxed and saddening. Plato also condemned and wanted to abolish instrumental music that was gaining popularity in society. He believed the ethical power of music came from the lyrics and dance that the instrumental music lacked. Also, the instrumental music focused too much on technical skills and was, he thought, a frivolous form of entertainment.

Aristotle agreed with most of Plato's theories, but he had a few major oppositions. Unlike Plato, Aristotle believed instrumental music could imitate the composer's emotion and state of soul, such as love, hate, bravery, or fear just as much as lyrical music could. He also believed that listening to a type of music repeatedly would make a person's character conform to what the music was imitating. He believed that this possible manipulation could be a good thing. If a person was weak, or if soldiers were preparing for battle, they could listen to music that showed courage and bravery. However, a person had to be careful to not over-listen to music portraying bad personality traits, such as fear or anger. Aristotle also declared all scales acceptable for use, and declared music useful for educating, entertaining, and manipulating emotions for positive purposes.

The Doctrine of Ethos talks about the moral qualities of music and the affect of sound on the human body. It discusses what harmful music can do to a person's soul, and how ethical music will benefit your soul. It also discusses how music relates to the cosmic universe. Plato's Republic discusses his aforementioned views on why music should be used as an educational tool, and how it can be dangerous. Augustine's teachings in his De Musica talk about the pleasure of music. It discusses how when sound is heard, it leaves an impression on the body much like pain or pleasure would. The main question of his work is how to discern "good" music from "bad" music. In the times of these ancient philosophers, there were general definitions of "good" and "bad" music. Good music was anything of wholesome value that promoted courage, power, and physical and emotional strength. Bad music was music that portrayed fear, anxiety, or sadness. The problem was, different people had different views on what music portrayed, and on what types of music was wholesome. Controversy arose over whether or not purely instrumental music was wholesome or not, and which instruments could be used for certain types of music.

The Greek Church had opposing viewpoints on music. Many believed that music could distract people from worshipping because music is an earthly pleasure. Even by using music as a means of worship, people could start thinking of the music above the spiritual implications. However, music was allowed in the Church because people believed it could rouse emotions in weaker minds and encourage them to worship. Also, the Church as a whole only accepted simple music for worship and ceremonial use. Slaves and townsmen would hold contests to show off their technical skills. The Church did not believe this should be the case for worship because complex music could be very distracting and boastful of earthly capabilities.

The content of a musical piece can generally alter and affect the listener's emotions. There are a few definitions of emotion: cognitive appraisal, subjective feeling, physiological arousal, emotional expression, action tendency, and emotion regulation. People value music because it expresses and affects their emotions, but the listener has to know the difference between perceiving emotions and actually feeling emotions in response to the music in order to know if this is true. Composers can feel one emotion and try to embody it in their music, but the listener may feel a completely different emotion.

Music can generally imitate basic emotions. Music that imitates happiness generally uses a fast tempo with minor tempo variability, a major key, perfect fourth and fifth interval, and a bright timbre. Music imitating sadness generally uses a slow tempo with minor tempo variability, a minor key, dissonance, legato articulation, pauses, and a dull timbre. When anger is portrayed in music, composers will use a fast tempo with minor tempo variability, a minor key, dissonance, major 7th and augmented 4th intervals, sudden rhythmic changes, and sharp, contrasting notes. When fear is imitated, a fast tempo with large tempo variability is used, a minor key, dissonance, and rapid changes in sound level are used. Other emotions can be imitated, but these are very basic and commonly used musical emotions. More complex emotions, such as anxiety, love, and vulnerability, are difficult if not impossible to portray. These emotions can be portrayed as many other emotions, so they are often mistaken for different emotions than intended by the listeners. These emotions are completely objective. What is meant to be fear may be taken as anxiety or even self-loathing. It is difficult to define them, so it is difficult to portray them in music.

A person's culture affects the way music is heard. People subconsciously have internalized their culture's tonal rules. When a violation is made to these rules, the listener reacts and usually does not find the piece of music appealing. Also, a person's musical ability and appreciation is shaped by their culture. Instruments are constructed differently, people sing differently in different societies, and the way someone hears music and sound varies depending on the person's culture. This was apparent even in Ancient Greek, though they did not realize it. People in the lower classes enjoyed instrumental and highly technical songs while the upper classes liked the traditional lyrical songs. Also, different towns found the different modes pleasing. This is what led to many of the controversies. Some people would find one mode to be saddening while others thought it to be quite appealing.

It is difficult to prove whether or not a listener is actually feeling the intended emotion from the music, or if they perceive it. The emotional content of music is really subjective. A composer may be feeling angry when they compose a piece of music, but the listener could find it sounding fearful. This is because it's difficult to translate emotions from music, and because the emotion a listener feels could be connected to an outside source. The music may bring up a memory for the listener, so they feel the emotion connected to that particular memory. The listener's current environment could also affect the emotion they perceive. If they're sitting in a crowded theatre with talkative people surrounding them, they may not find the piece to be happy or uplifting. This may also affect the listener if they hear the same piece again because they may remember the distractions of the crowd around them and remember feeling angry and annoyed, and thus finding the piece annoying. Another possibility is that the listener's mood is strong enough to block out the emotion imitated in the music. An angry person may not find a piece to be happy, and vice versa.

When tested, music was seen to have raised the levels of hormones released in the body. During these tests, there was activity seen in the parts of the brain that deal with reward and motivation, emotion, and arousal. These areas are usually only induced by food, sex, and drugs of an abusive nature. It can be hypothesized that, since music stimulates areas of the brain connected to the aforementioned pleasures, there is a connection between those pleasures and the pleasure of music within the mind. Also, tests were done on how music affects the levels of hormones released. It was shown that music could lower the levels of cortisol in the body, which is associated with arousal and stress. Music could also raise the levels of melatonin in the body, which can induce sleep. It was also noted that endorphins, which help relieve pain, could be released. Therefore, music may contain some sort of healing power for the human body. "Music therapy," using music in addition to treatment options, has become popular in many hotels and institutions because of this discovery.

Music therapy is a type of therapy that harnesses music as a healing agent. It is often used simultaneously with other medical treatments, and can be used for major and minor problems. Nowadays, many surgical rooms are wired for a stereo system. This way, surgeons can play music while operating. This not only helps the patient, but it also helps the doctor. The doctors will choose cheery music to be played, which will usually stimulate areas of the brain to release hormones and cells that help repair bodily damage and ease pain. This music also helps keep the doctors in a good mood, thus minimizing chances of error in the surgical procedure. Music therapy can also be used for actual therapy sessions, both for mental and physical issues. Psychiatrists use music to help patients release pent-up emotions, to diagnose problems, and to promote a faster healing rate. Physical therapists also can use music to keep patients in good spirits and promote faster healing rates. Also, music therapy can be used in chiropractic offices and spas. The music can relax the patients and make the chiropractic work easier and the spa treatments more enjoyable.

The whole brain is needed to appreciate music. There is no "music center" in the human brain. The right hemisphere is needed to recognize pitch, melody, harmony, timbre, and rhythm. The left hemisphere is needed to recognize the rapid changes in frequency and intensity in music and words, the rhythm, and the key. Both hemispheres are needed for complete perception of rhythm, say, to tell the difference between 3 /4 and 4/4 time signatures. Also, the frontal cortex, where memories are stored, is needed for rhythm and melody perception.

Music appreciation uses memories, recognition of sequences of musical components, and coordination of different regions of the brain. However, a listener's appreciation for a piece can be affected by their experiences more than their physiological aspect. Music is recognized by brain circuits similar to those that recognize language. These circuits are located throughout the brain, much like language circuits. However, specialized areas of language deal with the left hemisphere, and specialized areas of music deal with the right hemisphere.

There are physiological aspects of the brain for both listeners and musicians. People listening to music will rely on their right hemisphere. Musicians, especially ones who can read and write sheet music, show additional activity in the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere is used when thinking or dreaming up a melody. The left hemisphere, however, is for actually writing and transcribing the melody. Also, when a person listens to music they like, endogenous opiods are released. These are the same molecules that are implicated in social bonding, parental love, and narcotics.

Not a lot is known about Greek music, other than it was an important aspect of Greek life, and it sparred many controversial discussions. However, writings of the famous philosophers show that the Greeks held music in the highest regards. It was entertainment for them, in dramatic productions, poetry, dance, and simple technical competitions. It was also used for religious ceremonies, feasts, banquets, receptions, parties, and other traditional ceremonies. This proves that music was very important, since it was used in everyday life and important rituals. However, it was thought of as having a spiritual power that could be very dangerous to a person's soul and character. This spiritual power was mildly explained by the philosopher Philolaus. He explained that music was part factual information and part human soul or emotion. This directly related to the human soul, which is also part information and part emotion. This meant that when a composer was composing music, he was literally using his soul to create it. It was impossible to distinguish between the music and the soul in a song. This also meant that when someone listened to a piece of music, their soul would bond and mold to the music, which was essentially the composer's soul. Therefore, listening to wholesome and enriching music with honorable traits would make the listener's soul act upon those honorable traits. Listening to music with anger, sadness, apprehension, and other dishonorable traits meant the listener's soul would also copy these embodies emotions. This was why the Greeks believed that music had cosmic and supernatural powers. However, it may have just been the human body's physiological responses to auditory stimuli that created this reaction. Research now has shown that music affects many aspects of the brain, both in the left and right hemispheres. It can also trigger the release of hormones and other cells, which inadvertently can change a person's emotions and also physically and mentally heal the human body. Because of this, many doctors have begun using the mood-altering techniques used by the Ancient Greeks to help treat and heal their patients. Therefore, the cosmic power in music that the Ancient Greeks believed was responsible for altering a person's soul and emotions was actually just the human body's natural response to auditory stimuli.

More about this author: Kelsey Winters

From Around the Web