I just watched the 2009 documentary "The Musical Brain" – various neuroscientists studying the responses of the brain to the listening, composing, and dancing with music. Most interestingly, one professor (Daniel J. Levitin) studied what happens in Sting's brain when he listens to or composes music. Also interesting, Wyclef Jean was talking, using the sleepiest voice and expressions that I have ever seen, about how his eyes lighten up and how excited he gets when he hears or plays music.
Here is a synopsis of the documentary in my own order:
- There is a natural, perhaps evolutionary, association between movement and music. The more we dance to a piece of music, the more we our brain releases dopamine (Peter Jenata, UC Davis). Dopamine is said to make us feel good, although as far as I can see its use in the brain is complex – low levels may result in pain and high levels may result in schizophrenia. We can perhaps use music as a tool to achieve some emotional state, although no two people react the same way to the same piece of music.
- Evolutionary music was probably also connected to bonding. Singing together releases oxytocin – a hormone related to orgasms, pair bonding, and maternal behavior. Humans are the only animals that can synchronize. Other animals can bang on drums, but not together.
- Music is also related to intense memories – ones entrenched with music – and music helps us not to forget those memories. There are neural chemicals released with the certain memories we find important and music serves as a retrieval cue. Musical memory is very persistent. Alzheimer's patients still remember a lot of the older music, although they may not remember mundane things. Scores in musical memory tests on Alzheimer's patients are just as good of those as healthy patients. There is even more preservation of emotion in music than the preservation of music itself, as these patients would respond to emotions in music even if they do not remember the music itself.
- Music, and its associated effects, is learned at a very early age. Babies remember musical pieces they listened to before they were even born. After they are born they would listen more intently to music that they listened to while in the womb. A four month old baby will anticipate musical structure and would detect when those musical structures change (i.e., when one of the notes is replaced with another).
- Complex music is an intellectual exercise. Learning to play music activates more areas of the brain than almost anything else we know about. It has visual and spatial aspects, motor planning, remembering where you are in the musical piece, and anticipating what comes next. All that brain activity, if stimulated in babies, leads to faster develop faster and better scores on intelligence tests later. Creating music also stimulates various parts of the brain – for example the caudate – the part that plans and organizes body movements in response to emotions. In professional musicians (Sting) creating music activates the tissue that connects left and right side of the brain, which is rare with other activity (amateur musicians use predominantly their right side of the brain – the one that processes musical pitch).
- Activity in the brain reflects the person's taste in music (i.e., the brain "shuts down" and does not respond when music is not liked). The brain however responds similarly to all music that is liked. That is, it responds similarly and not differently to all genres. (Scientists do not yet understand the biology of musical preferences.)
- Last but not least, the brain is always looking for novelty, and, if it does not find it, it gets bored. The brain does not do well with music that is too unfamiliar, but gets bored with music that is too simple and expected. Musicians tend to use that – aware or not. Thus, a lot of popular music is a mixture of simplicity with a few complications – unexpected changes thrown here and there.