Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Music and the brain

Rayda Joomun


“The piano keys are black and white but they sound like a
million colours in your mind”
 – Maria Cristina Mena

Music  brings a smile to our faces. Yet this abstract entity has no conventional defining criteria. Proust acknowledged this: “Music helped me to descend into myself, to discover new things; the variety that I had sought in vain in life, in travel, but for a longing which was nonetheless renewed in me by this sonorous tide”. Is  music merely a melody or harmony of sound waves over time expressing emotions? Or is it a mix and match of sound and silence? It does not  take a scientist to describe it in beat, rhythm and tempo, but its essence is unknown to all. Why is it that we pick up catchy tunes? Why are some people tone-deaf whilst others have entire symphonies running through their heads?

Music is a universal language which binds cultures together. Melomaniacs affirm it is the only drug which uplifts their moods, motivates them, and helps them concentrate. Surprisingly, the brains of musicians have shown certain structural enhancements. They are found to be more symmetrical1 and have  highly developed specialized areas for motor control, spatial coordination, and sound processing.

Biochemical studies have shown up regulation of BDNF levels from music. BDNF, or Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, is a protein essential for the survival of the nervous system. It stimulates growth and differentiation of neurons and synapses. BDNF thrives in the hippocampus, the cortex, and the basal forebrain,which are the areas vital for memory, learning, and higher mental functions. Many  factors boost BDNF levels: starvation, exercise, lower Body Mass Index, and music amongst others. Schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer’s disease2, dementia, and aging are all associated with low BDNF levels. As a result, music is said to be neuroprotective. It also improves performance in cognitive tasks, positively affects moods and emotions, consolidates long-term memory, enhances learning and performance, and benefits diseased brains. Any soundtrack played boosts brain chemicals by promoting the release of dopamine3, the motivation molecule, and oxytocin4, the trust molecule. Furthermore, musical notes bring down the cortisol level to induce relaxation and sleep.

Melodies do seep into our brains. Music has been used to treat a plethora of diseases. In Tourette’s syndrome, symphonies make patients lose their tics5 and regain their normal composure. Fine motor skills have reappeared in Parkinsonism6. Autistic patients have shed their callousness7. Completely dysphasic demented patients  have been moved to tears. While playing music, the blood flow in the left cerebral hemisphere has been shown to increase8. Therefore musicophiles do better in mathematics, language, and reading.

The Mozart Effect, first coined by Dr. Alfred Tamatis, describes how listening to Mozart’s music improves spatial-temporal reasoning and spatial intelligence. In simpler terms, it makes us better understand how things work together as a whole, an indispensable asset in architecture and engineering.

Tolstoy, however, was deeply ambivalent about music. He attributed music to have “a power to induce fictitious states of mind, emotions and images that were not his own and not under his control”. The hearing- impaired have recently been found to develop musical hallucinations. In Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain  by Oliver Sacks, he mentions very rarely recorded cases of musicolepsia – epileptic seizures induced by music.

Whether it is starting to sing nursery rhymes, tapping your feet to a beat, humming a tune, plucking guitar strings, or playing a piece by ear, music has struck everyone at least once.   Sounds transport you. It is a wholly unique venture. Music has touched millions and for good reason. It brings chills, states of ecstasy, feelings of intoxication, and rapture. Not only is it entertaining but it is also harmonizing, therapeutic and altogether a very delightful experience.



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  3. Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Larcher K, Dagher A, Zatorre RJ. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience. 2011 Feb;14(2):257-62. doi: 10.1038/nn.2726. Epub 2011 Jan 9
  4. Keeler JR, Roth EA, Neuser BL, Spitsbergen JM, Waters DJ, Vianney JM. The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: bonding and oxytocin. Frontiers Human Neuroscience. 2015 Sep 23;9:518. doi: 1.3389/fnhum.2015.00518. eCollection 2015
  5. Bodeck S, Lappe C, Evers S. Tic-reducing effects of music in patients with Tourette’s syndrome: Self reported and objective analysis. JNS. 2015 May 15;352(1-2):41-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jns.2015.03.016. Epub 2015 Mar 17
  6. Bernatzky G, Bernatzky P, Hesse HP, Staffen W, Ladurner G. Stimulating music increases motor coordination in patients afflicted with Morbus Parkinson. Neuroscience Letters. 2004 May 6;361(1-3):4-8
  7. Brown LS. The influence of music on facial emotion recognition in children with autism spectrum disorder and neurotypical children. J Music Therapy. 2016 Dec 31. pii: thw017. doi: 10.1093/jmt/thw017.
  8. Carod Artal FJ, Vazquez Cabrera C, Horan TA. Lateralisation of cerebral blood flow velocity changes during auditory stimulation: a functional transcranial Doppler study. Appl Neuropsychol. 204;11(3):167-74.
  9. Figure 1.  Maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com



RAYDA AAISHAH JOOMUN, MD grew up in Mauritius. She studied medicine at Dow University of Health Sciences, Karachi, Pakistan. She has obtained multiple literary awards for the Commonwealth ‘Write around the world’ competition and the 5th International Writers’ Conference in Mauritius. She thanks her father for introducing her to the beauty of music at an early age. She is currently in general practice.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 10, Issue 1 – Winter 2018
Winter 2017  |  Sections  |  Music Box

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