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Caden Sanford

Dr. Cassel

English 1201

21 July 2019

Music and the Mind: A Powerful Combination

Music is all around us everywhere we go, at any time of the day, in all corners of the

globe. It’s a language known by every person, a universal tongue to be created, enjoyed, and

shared with others. Its ongoing presence in our lives makes it a powerful force to be reckoned

with. Personally, music has been a big part of my life starting at a very young age. I grew up

listening to songs on the radio and in television shows, wherever I could get it. I also spent about

9 years of my life learning and practicing the piano – an instrumental form of music that allowed

me to create and hold a direct connection to the sounds being produced. Although I did have that

ability, it isn’t so much playing music as it is listening to and thinking about music that has

always had an impact on me. Different songs with different sounds and beats and tempos all

continue to make me feel different ways depending on the situation or mood I’m in. One song

might make me feel emotional and sad, thinking inward and reflective, while another song might

make me feel powerful and confident, bursting at the seams to jump and shout. Music is simply

different tones and beats put together in a way that tells a story to the listener, and those stories

hold power over the body and mind. In any and all forms, music should remain an ever-present

feature of society as a result of its potential to cause permanent beneficial changes in a person’s

mind, contributing to activation of vital areas of the brain, and improvements in academic

performance and social capabilities.

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To fully appreciate the way music can affect a person’s life and performance, one must

first understand how sound itself influences different sections of the brain and the results of those

influences. From the moment a song enters a person’s ears, it is travelling to different areas of

the brain to trigger different activities of the body that often go unnoticed and without second

thought. Tom Barnes, a senior staff writer at Mic with a focus on music, discusses the various

paths a piece of music might take in the brain as it is received by an individual in his article,

“Here’s What Happens Inside Your Brain When You Listen to Music…”. According to Barnes,

music is able to travel through and affect all of the brain’s lobes, which can evoke emotion and

various memories (Barnes). One of the first stages of taking in a song is its travel through the

auditory cortex. Working together with the cerebellum, it is able to break down music into

different parts that work together to create the sounds a person hears (Barnes). This sort of

process can be compared to following a recipe in which each individual and unique ingredient

contributes to the final, delicious product. All of those parts of a song, the pitch, volume, and

duration, among other features, are the ingredients that combine to make what is perceived as

music – the cake who’s recipe was being followed. Following the auditory cortex, the sounds of

music are processed by the mesolimbic system, which is tied to a person’s feelings of pleasure

and desire. The dopamine neurotransmitter is transmitted by this system as a result, as dopamine

is directly tied to the sensations of arousal and pleasure. The “rush” of dopamine, which can also

be experienced after enjoying a piece of chocolate, “produces that indescribable feeling of ‘the

chills’ when we listen to an impeccably beautiful section of music” (Barnes). Have you ever

listened to a song and that one favorite part just makes your hairs stand on end and goosebumps

sprout up all over? Your love for that section and its sound is caused by dopamine activity.

Emotions are strongly tied to music and its connection with these regions of the brain as people
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are attracted to the sensation of waiting for an event to happen for a while, and finally

experiencing that event. Music writers and composers are well aware of this fact, leading them to

write songs that force the listener to wait for that big “moment” in the music which satisfies the

brain’s craving. A fairly recent social phenomenon, the “bass drop” in music is the part of the

song that creates the most excitement and engagement in an audience that listens to that genre of

music as it builds up tension and allows for a release of emotion as the climax is produced.

In addition, music is able to enact more physical activities of the body in response to

sound engagement in the brain. According to a study composed by researchers at Colorado State

University’s Center for Biomedical Research in Music, the act of processing pattern and meter in

songs helps engage somatosensory and premotor centers of the brain (Barnes). Apparently,

certain genres of music promote corticospinal excitability, which is related to a person’s urge to

dance – one that often can’t be held back. This excitability also causes blood to be pumped down

to the legs which is believed to cause the foot-tapping sensation when listening to a good song.

Rhythms in songs can affect heart rate and breathing patterns and can cause these processes to

“sync” with the music being heard (Barnes). Music’s ability to change the way one’s body’s life-

dependent functions act in a way that connects people to the music is incredible. It’s almost as if

the music is alive and it’s living in harmony with human beings.

Music has roots in the biology of mankind, making sense of the fact that the human body

depends on it and uses it to its benefit. In the article, “The Music in Our Minds,” from the

Education Leadership publication, written by Norman Weinberger, who has a PhD from Western

Reserve University in psychology and was a research professor in the field of neurobiology and

behavior, the topic of the biological roots of music is discussed. Weinberger states these

biological roots can be proven through four different types of findings in scientific literature. The
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first is the fact that animals would also be capable of harnessing and processing music. Using

monkeys as an example, Weinberger proves this to be true through the fact that monkeys can

think musically as well, being able to determine the frequency of a harmonic series, among other

capabilities. (Weinberger). If other animals are able to think about music in the same way that

humans do, it must be biologically originated and not something created at a point in history. The

second finding is the idea that these biological behaviors, along with music, are universal. Music

is seen in every culture of the world, no matter the language of the lyrics, it is used the same

way. In all different nationalities, parents and guardians of babies are able to communicate

through songs and lullabies – it isn’t a feature of solely one country or place. The third finding is

the idea of biological behaviors being noticed early in life before an individual is influenced by

the culture they are raised in. As seen frequently in society, “toddlers spontaneously exhibit

music behaviors, using music in their play and communication, composing songs, and inventing

original musical notations” (Weinberger). Even earlier than that, infants have been studied and

found to maintain musical capabilities as they are able to tell the difference between notes,

remember pitches of melodies, and comprehend rhythm, relating different music they have heard

to corresponding events during the day. The fourth and final finding is the concept of the brain

being designed and organized to process music. This has also been proven by research as proof

of elements in the brain being related to music, like neurons, have been found. Neurons can

recognize things like tone pitch, rhythm, and melodies. The brain’s two hemispheres have

different focuses: the right with melody and the left with language (Weinberger). As different

components of the brain are equally dedicated to processing both music and language, the two of

them can be placed on the same level of necessity and involvement as each other. Music’s

evolutionary origins and the maintenance of that status in the brains of humans and other species
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alike proves the ongoing and eternal presence music has in the lives of people and the potential

for further beneficial engagement.

Fig. 1. A mother’s voice positively impacts an infant’s development (“Why Parents Sing to Babies”)

Music and sound is an important aspect of an infant’s development in terms of

connection to the mother and the world around them. Infants born preterm with baseline

complications are especially susceptible to the benefits of dialogue and sound. Manuela Filippa,

an independent researcher from Italy, along with his co-editors involved with medicine and

research in France and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, use their book Early Vocal Contact

and Preterm Infant Brain Development to discuss the topic of early vocal contact (EVC) as a

means of healthcare for preterm infants as a result of its impact on minimizing negative effects of

premature birth and promoting brain development. The overarching idea of Filippa’s book is that

for babies born before their due date, the mother’s voice, whether through words or song, can

act as a treatment to comfort and support the child (Filippa 3-23). In this sense, a mother’s

voice is heard as a form of music to the infant’s ears, which acts as a soothing and comforting

mechanism to help “treat” a preterm baby. It is explained that vocal sounds from the mother or

father function to promote bonding and attachment as an infant is developing. In fact, having
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parents present during the care period of their child born preterm decreases risks associated

with separation of mother and child which can lead to other mental and physical issues later in

life (Filippa 133-150). Having that closeness between a mother and her child, with the child

able to feel and listen to the being that created them, helps to avoid any further psychological

issues that could rise up later on had the two been separated after birth. Talking and singing in

close proximity to a preterm infant helps to activate sight, the olfactory system, and touch,

which are all important components of a child’s brain complexes. Activating these systems is a

form of exercise which works to help develop the systems further in an effort to develop them

after not having being fully developed in pregnancy. In addition, vocal exchanges between

parents and their children can act as a “didactic system to support the development of thought

and speech” (Filippa 133-150). The voice of a mother, a form of live music from the

perspective of a young child, acts as a growing and teaching tool. The infant depends on that

vocal contact to help develop vital brain centers and prepare their minds and bodies to be

properly functional for the duration of their lives.

Past the point of infancy, being exposed to music early in a child’s life has shown to

positively influence their brain development and academic achievement. According to recent

research, it has been found that children who are educated musically experience great benefit

for their minds. Anna Kaminsky, with a PhD in psychology from the University of Toronto

and having completed a post-doc internship at the Dr. Tali Shenfield Advanced Psychology

center, discusses this idea in her article, “How Playing Music Affects a Child’s Brain.” She

explains that researchers at Concordia University have found that getting a child involved with

music lessons before age seven can result in improved planning and motor skills (Kaminsky),

along with the idea that children involved with musical training early on are better at
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completing tasks involving accurate timing. This kind of skill can grow into a life habit useful

in daily activities like driving in which faster reflexes could mean the difference between life

and death. As mentioned earlier, there is a similarity in the way that both language and music

is processed in the brain. This connection, along with a good, “sense of rhythm and cadence

translates into having a better understanding of spoken language. This in turn enhances a

child’s ability to read…” (Kaminsky). The processing of music, the way syllables flow, and the

prediction of word placement in a song all contributes to a child’s ability to properly

understand the written language and how it works. Additionally, children with musical

capabilities tend to perform better in school as a result of their improved memory skills and

ability to pay attention to auditory information in class. These improvements have shown to

last an entire lifetime and research suggests, “they may even help to combat age-related

hearing difficulties” (Kaminsky). The fact that these skills can be developed at such a young

age and then carried on to old age proves the strength that music has in terms of brain

construction and maintenance. These findings are confirmed in an article, “Music education

aids in brain development, vital to learning,” written for the Philadelphia Inquirer by Mia

Chung, a concert pianist and professor of musical studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in

Philadelphia. Chung explains the multiple benefits that playing a musical instrument can have

on a developing child’s brain. For example, it develops executive function, a neurocognitive

skill critical for brain operation, both in an academic sense and in a life skills sense (Chung).

“Focusing on a topic, memorizing information, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and paying

attention to multiple ideas simultaneously” (Chung), all describe executive function in action.

Additionally, studies from the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s

Hospital have shown that executive function is, “a strong predictor of academic achievement,
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even more than IQ” (Chung). This shows the grand influence music and learning to play music

can have on a child’s performance in school, in addition to all of the other skills and abilities it

benefits as aforementioned.

In addition to purely academic-based benefits in a child’s mind when it comes to music,

a child’s social capabilities are also enhanced and nurtured. Kaminsky goes on to discuss the

various effects that being exposed to music can have on a child’s communication skills and

social standing. According to a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, music does in fact

enhance a person’s communication skills, which, when carried on to adulthood, can contribute

to improved social and emotional wellness in general (Kaminsky). This also involves a child’s

sense of individuality and identity, boosting their confidence and self-esteem as a result. Music

provides a safe outlet for pride and self-expression as well. Being able to musically perform

provides a child with a talent they can call their own, making them feel unique and admired.

This admiration comes with a better tolerance for the other side of the coin: constructive

criticism, allowing children to better rebound from failures – an important life skill. The

creativity involved with playing music can push a child in the direction of other creative

outlets, allowing for further self-expression and exploration in order to find a sense of identity

while growing up. Music also happens to be very beneficial in terms of keeping a person’s

mood in line as research has found that adults exposed to musical performance at a young age

have a lower chance of exhibiting anxiety disorder (Kaminsky). This connection suggests that

being exposed to music early on can create happier and healthier individuals later in life, free

from conditions that might make them sad or angry. The benefits are innumerable, and the

areas of life music can affect are immeasurable, proving its importance and power.
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Because of the numerous benefits musical instruction and exposure can have on a

child’s development and performance in later life, a plea for increased musical performance

classes in schools has arisen. Emily Gersema, the Associate Director of Communications for

the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, tackles this topic in her article, “Music

training can change children’s brain structure and boost decision-making network” written on the

news webpage for the University of Southern California. In a Brain and Creativity Institute

(BCI) study, musical instruction allowed for developments in the size and density of regions of

the brains of children that process sound, as opposed to children with no musical instruction who

exhibited no signs of brain change (Gersema). These brain regions, called auditory association

areas, are a telltale sign of brain maturity. In the BCI study, the children instructed musically

showed “differences in the thickness of the auditory areas in the right versus the left hemisphere,

a sign that music training impacts brain structure” (Gersema). Additionally, the children that

learned to read and play music themselves showed a greater formation of white brain matter,

associated with stronger corpus callosum connectivity, allowing for better communication

between the hemispheres of the brain. According to lead author and assistant research professor

of psychology Assal Habibi, after observing the immense changes in the brains of children

learning to practice music in comparison to the brains of average children who are not, it is

suggested that learning with music is strong enough to mature a child emotionally and

intellectually (Gersema). Musical instruction is a powerful tool that has proven to benefit the

children involved in ways transcending merely the classroom. This conclusion is furthered by

Laurie Curtis, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Kansas State University,

and Jana Fallin, a professor of music and director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Kansas

State University as well in their article, “Neuroeducation and Music: Collaboration for Student
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Success,” in the Music Educators Journal. In the article, a study is mentioned in which six-year-

old students were given 15 months of musical instruction for 30 minutes each day and

behavioral/structural enhancements were observed in different regions of the brain through the

use of fMRI scanning (Curtis and Fallin). Through the use of MRI scans, the researchers were

able to visually observe noticeable changes in the brain structure of children who were being

taught music and it is stated later that music instruction makes neural pathways stronger at all

ages, not just young children. Curtis and Fallin explain that students in music classrooms today

are, “engaged in rich, multisensory experiences, and building strong, healthy neural pathways for

learning” enhancing brain plasticity, heightened attention, and memory (Curtis and Fallin). They

are in favor of collaboration between music teachers and grade-level teachers in an effort to

promote greater learning and brain engagement, instead of students being left with “specials”

teachers, like music and art teachers, while grade-level teachers meet to plan their own

curriculum. They offer the suggestion to schools and their staff the idea of music providing a

“real-life” connection between history and song, exploring ancestry and self-expression through

writing and reading music (Curtis and Fallin). This would mean that music teachers could relate

their instruction to other subjects students are being taught at the same time, relating songs to

other aspects of a person’s life, increasing engagement and applying the brain developing

benefits in a broader context. Music itself is a powerful tool when it comes to the classroom and

preparing children for the rest of their lives. The effects music and song have on brain

development and the brain centers activated while being exposed to music speak for themselves.

The solution to creating generations of mentally enhanced and academically superior students is

to promote music instruction in the education system, maintaining music classes on the schedule

and encouraging students to get involved with music on their own.

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Many people believe different genres of music can have a negative impact on a person’s

brain activity and mood. For example, it has been a common belief that listening to heavy metal

music can only have negative effects on a person’s mental health, including links to increased

suicide risk or desensitization to violence. However, studies have corrected these assumptions,

describing the numerous benefits that genre of music can have on individuals who enjoy it. Sara

Rigby, a writer for the BBC Science Focus Magazine with a focus on music-related articles,

explores this topic in her article, “Is heavy metal bad for your mental health?”. In referencing a

study composed at Macquarie University, she explains that everyday listeners of heavy metal

music responded the same way as those who don’t listen to the genre when it came to violent

images (Rigby). Both fans of heavy metal music and people who don’t listen to heavy metal

music had the same response when processing the violent image presented to them, proving that

listening to heavy metal music actually has no effect in terms of desensitization to violence. The

article continues on to say that heavy metal fans are able to cope with anger and emotion through

the music’s energy and sound (Rigby). In referencing two separate studies, it is shown that, for

avid listeners, heavy metal music can actually be used as an emotional outlet to release stress and

benefit their emotional state. In a different study, it is proven that, when considering outside

factors, listening to heavy metal music actually had no effect on suicide risk in adolescents.

Correlation does not equal causation, as listeners of heavy metal music may be having struggles

in their family and/or social life that could be influencing their mood and behavior, and not

strictly the act the listening to the heavy metal music. All genres of music, depending on the

preferences of the individual listening, can have calming and emotional release effects, beneficial

to a person’s brain and mental health.

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Music is a powerful thing. The combination of different notes and sounds together in a

way that makes sense to an individual contributes to a lifetime of enhanced logical reasoning

skills and social capabilities. Infants and children alike exposed to music, whether that be

through vocal contact, musical performance, or simply listening, experience countless benefits to

the mind in terms of the development of important areas of the brain involved with skills like

attention, memory, and language. Music is all around us, every day. Why not put that music to

good use and help promote advanced learning and engagement for generations to come?

Generations of doctors, lawyers, chefs, authors, policemen, and musicians, all with advanced

skills and abilities resulting from a childhood of musical instruction and exposure. We have the

tool we need – it’s in our blood. Music has the power to create change, we just need to take that

first step and start listening.

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Works Cited

Barnes, Tom. “Here's What Happens Inside Your Brain When You Listen to Music, in 3 Mind-

Blowing GIFs.” Mic, 3 June 2015,


Chung, Mia. "Music education aids in brain development, vital to learning." Philadelphia

Inquirer [Philadelphia, PA], 23 Mar. 2015. Opposing Viewpoints in Context,

&sid=OVIC&xid=7e1b909b. Accessed 22 June 2019.

Curtis, Laurie, and Jana Fallin. “Neuroeducation and Music: Collaboration for Student

Success.” Music Educators Journal, vol. 101, no. 2, Dec. 2014, pp. 52–56. EBSCOhost,

Filippa, Manuela, et al. Early Vocal Contact and Preterm Infant Brain Development : Bridging

the Gaps between Research and Practice. Springer, 2017. EBSCOhost,


Gersema, Emily. “Music Training Can Change Children's Brain Structure and Boost Decision-

Making Network.” USC News, 16 Feb. 2018,


Kaminsky, Anna. “How Playing Music Affects a Child's Brain.” Child Psychology Resources

(by Dr. Tali Shenfield), Dr. Tali Shenfield and Advanced Psychology Services, 16 May


Rigby, Sara. “Is Heavy Metal Bad for Your Mental Health?” BBC Science Focus Magazine, 18

Mar. 2019,

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Weinberger, Norman M. “The Music in Our Minds.” Educational Leadership, vol. 56, no. 3, Jan.

1998, pp. 36–40. EBSCOhost,

“Why Parents Sing to Babies”. Greater Good Science Center, 19 January 2016, Accessed 21

July 2019.