'The Power Of Music' To Affect The Brain Science all but confirms that humans are hard-wired to respond to music. Studies also suggest that someday music may even help patients heal from Parkinson's disease or a stroke. In The Power of Music, Elena Mannes explores how music could play a role in health care.
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'The Power Of Music' To Affect The Brain

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'The Power Of Music' To Affect The Brain

'The Power Of Music' To Affect The Brain

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

At some point almost everybody's touched by music: the goose bumps from a haunting score in a horror film, the catchy tune that gets you up and dancing. Now new research and new technology lets us see what's actually going on in the brain at those moments.

In her new book, Elena Mannes tackles a number of fascinating questions. Why does music have such power over our emotions? Why is it universal across all cultures? Does music provide some evolutionary advantage? Is music uniquely human, or do we share it with other animals? Is it hardwired? Did it come before language? And can music make us happier, smarter and healthier?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255 if you have questions about the science of music. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program: a fight in the close quarters of an airliner. Flight attendants, how do you police air travel etiquette? The email address again is talk@npr.org.

But first, the power of music. Elena Mannes joins us from our bureau in New York. Her new book is "The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song."

And nice to have you with us today.

Ms. ELENA MANNES (Author): Nice to be here. Thank you so much.

CONAN: And you've been entrenched in music your whole life. You open your book by describing how you grew up in a very musical family, and your - you spent time, as a small child, under a piano.

Ms. MANNES: I did. I was very fortunate, I now realize, to grow up in a family of classical musicians. And one of my earliest memories is of lying under the grand piano as my father practiced. And I remember feeling that vibration and just being fascinated, you know, with that physical sensation.

CONAN: And one of the findings you uncover in your book is that, indeed, infants, even younger than you were then, infants seem to have musical innate ability.

Ms. MANNES: Well, yes. There are several studies. There are studies indicating that infants prefer consonance, at least to a certain degree. Consonance -consonant intervals are those smooth-sounding ones that sound nice to our Western ears in a chord, as opposed to a jarring combination of notes.

And then there's a fascinating study by a researcher in Germany who analyzed the cries of infants just a few weeks old and found that they contain some of the intervals - some of the basic intervals common to Western music, at least, and some of them would be universal across cultures, as well.

CONAN: Universal across cultures, which, of course, could be said of music, as well. They - you said they have yet to find a culture that does not include music.

Ms. MANNES: That's true. Music - you know, certainly philosophers and thinkers throughout the ages have made note of that and asked: You know, why is that? I mean, what is it about music that seems to strike so powerfully?

And - but it's only within the last decade or so that scientists have really had the technology and started to really look for hard evidence of how music affects our bodies and brains and what the effects are.

CONAN: It's interesting. You're talking about the fRMI technology and PET scans, as well, which can watch blood flow through the brain and give you an idea of which parts of the brain are being stimulated or - in response to various kinds of music or language or anything else.

We did a show on neurotheology, on how people practicing religion, how their brains look. And it's interesting. You're coming up with, in some ways, interesting parallel findings - not you, but the researchers you report on -that the whole brain seems to be involved.

Ms. MANNES: Yes. They believe that music uses more parts of the brain, involves more parts of the brain than any other functions that we perform, which is a pretty amazing fact and statement.

And that relates to, you know, why music has so much potential to change the brain and affect the way the brain works.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Elena Mannes about her new book "The Power of Music." It's about the science of music, which she - as she just told you, has been emerging over the past 10 years, along with technology, to uncover how it happens and how we experience it in our brain. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And Terry's(ph) on the line from Brewstertown in Tennessee.

TERRY (Caller): Thanks Tom, Elena. Yes, my grandmother had two strokes in less than a week, and for months, she didn't speak. But when songs that where - she was familiar with and used to sing were sung, she would sing along.

And I've heard of other instances where people that had lost memory or communications capacities did this.

CONAN: And Elena Mannes, that's one of the most interesting parts of your book.

Ms. MANNES: Well, it's true. The relationship between music and language and the potential of using music to help people with neurological deficits is immense.

With stroke patients, because they now believe that there's an overlap of music and language functions in the brain, that's a matter of some discussion, but it seems to be the case. So a stroke patient who has lost verbal function, those verbal functions may be stimulated by music.

Also with Alzheimer's patients, I mean, this is a different thing than a stroke, but music, of course, triggers many associations in our memories. So Alzheimer's patients, for example, will respond to music long after they've lost the ability to respond to anything else.

And going back to stroke patients, there are new techniques, one of which is called melodic intonation therapy, which uses pieces of melody, music to stimulate portions of the brain to take over from those that are damaged so those patients can begin to speak again.

CONAN: Hmm. And Terry, when the music plays, what do you see happen?

TERRY: Tom, this was 30 years ago.

CONAN: Oh, 30 years ago. All right. It's Neal, by the way.

TERRY: I'm sorry.

CONAN: That's all right. But thanks for the phone call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Dale, and Dale with us from Columbus.

DALE (Caller): Yes, I agree that music does transcend not only borders, but cultures and all kinds of things. It is the one universal thing that does.

And my wife was a huge Celine Dion fan and never got a chance to see her, but she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. And between the two local celebrities here who she did chemotherapy with was (unintelligible) local TV and Stephanie Spielman(ph), the wife of the OSU football player.

Between that and Celine Dion's music, she survived twice. And, you know, we've always taken our music, as a whole, very seriously. You know, my son, me in mosh pits with him. My daughter goes to see all the female pop stars. And my wife and I prefer the old stuff.

But I'm quite sure because this "New Day Has Come" CD actually sang our lives. We had one of the greatest love stories of all time. Unfortunately, I lost her in 2006. But she made me promise to go see her, which I did, and to write her a letter to thank for this CD, because it did, it sang our lives. And I'm quite sure that those three elements caused her to survive twice as long as she would have, statistically.

CONAN: Dale, that's an interesting story. We're sorry for your loss.

DALE: Well, it was a great performance. I was in the 11th row.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DALE: And I was impressed. She told me I'd be impressed, and I was impressed.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that.

DALE: But, yeah, music, I saw it in her, the smile on her face when the music would come on. I'm sure it helped a lot.

CONAN: It's interesting. Elena Mannes, you write about research that suggests yes, of course it can bring pleasure to people who are otherwise in pain, but maybe a little bit more than that in some cases.

Ms. MANNES: Well, it's being used - there are studies, nursing studies, I believe, that have really documented how it does help to relieve pain that patients in the hospital who listen to music or are given music therapy require fewer pain medications and less anesthesia before surgery. There are studies of that sort.

CONAN: Ani Patel studies the relationship between music and the brain. He's the president of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition. He's a senior fellow at the Neurosciences Institute, and joins us now from member station KPBS in San Diego.

Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. ANI PATEL (President, Society for Music Perception and Cognition; Senior Fellow, Neurosciences Institute): Hi, there.

CONAN: And the book describes a scene where you are dancing with a bird named Snowball. How do we get your job?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PATEL: And how did I get to that point in my life?

CONAN: Exactly.

Mr. PATEL: So that was - emerged from studies we've been doing on how and why people move to the beat of music. You talked about universals earlier in this, and that is one of the true musical universals. All over the world, people have - cultures have music with some sort of beat that people dance and move to, and they move in a way that is synchronized to the beat. And you can see this in our culture when people bob their head at a club, or they dance, or they tap their foot.

And there was - it's kind of a funny response. It seems very basic in some way, and yet other animals, by and large, don't seem to have this response. For example, dogs, who have lived for humans for 10,000 years or whatever, and have ample opportunities to see us do stuff and interact with us, they don't have this response to music.

So was it uniquely human? This was a question that was floating around in the field. And then we saw this video of a cockatoo, a sulfur-crested cockatoo named Snowball, dancing to music in a way that seemed to actually be on the beat.

And out of that emerged a collaborative study with the bird's owner, Irena Schultz, who runs the bird shelter in Indiana where Snowball lives, where we tested if Snowball could do this when we sped up or slowed down the music that he listened and when there was no humans dancing that he could be imitating.

And we showed that he did sense the beat, and he could adjust his dancing to stay synchronized. It was the first example of another species besides humans that has this response to music.

And we believe that it's not an accident that it's a parrot, because parrots, like us, have the ability to connect sound and movement in a very complex way, through their ability to imitate sound. And other primates, for example, don't do that. No other primate can learn vocally, and so we think even chimps wouldn't have this ability.

CONAN: It's interesting, though. Snowball liked to make eye contact with you when you were dancing, though.

Mr. PATEL: Yes. For him, this dancing is very much a social behavior. We did an experiment where we made sure no one was dancing with him, to show that he could do it on his own, but his preference is definitely for dancing with a partner. And in humans, dancing is often a social behavior, as well. It's largely something you do with other people.

CONAN: We're talking about a new book called "The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song." More with Elena Mannes in just a moment, and with Ani Patel. What questions do you have about the science of music? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about the power of music. In her new book, Elena Mannes describes the latest research into sound, music and babies.

This human relationship to sound starts early, she wrote. The fetus begins to develop an auditory system between 17 and 19 weeks. Already, we're in a world of sound, of breath and heartbeat, of rhythm and vibration.

But how do we know what the fetus actually hears? Until recently, there were different theories. Some doctors thought the fetus could hear only some frequencies, probably high ones. It certainly wasn't known whether we could hear and respond to music before birth until the groundbreaking research of Sheila Woodward.

The findings and the research itself are fascinating. You can read more about it in an excerpt from "The Power Of Music" at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Elena Mannes raises a large number of questions about science and sounds and music in the book. What questions do you have? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Also with us, Ani Patel, who serves as president of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition. He's the author of his own book, "Music, Language and the Brain."

And I wanted to follow up on that, Ani Patel. There's an interesting point in the book, which suggests that yes, researchers about a century ago were very interested in the origins of music but sort of got distracted, really, into looking into the origins of language over the past 100 years. It's only in the past few years that music has come back into the equation.

Mr. PATEL: Yes, I think the resurgence of neuroscience, or the emergence, I should say, of modern neuroscience research on music, with the ability to look at living brains, and as Elena mentioned, seeing just how much of the brain is activated when we listen to music or when we make music has just raised a bunch of questions. And it brought attention back to evolutionary questions, which were actually originally raised by Darwin in his "On the Descent of Man."

He has several pages where he talks about human music, and he speculated that it arose as a courtship signal, much the way that we think birdsong works in nature, among our ancestors, even before we had articulate language with words and so forth.

And so now there's this very active debate about is music an evolutionary adaptation, or is it something that we invented? And this is now percolating through a lot of the music cognition literature.

CONAN: Elena Mannes, you also describe, we're talking about high-tech equipment like PET scans and fMRIs. There's also some anthropologists in your book who have done some research in your book and found some very, very, very old musical instruments.

Ms. MANNES: Yes, archeologists in - American archeologists based in Germany, Nicholas Canard and his team have discovered very ancient flutes, one of which is presumed to be the oldest musical instrument in the world that we know of.

And remarkably, this flute, when played, it produces these amazingly pure tones, and the scale they can play is fairly similar, I believe, to the, you know, to our present-day scale in Western music.

And so this adds to the, you know, knowledge that musical ability and interest in music was something that belonged to very early man and possibly to Neanderthal man before that, as well.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Eric(ph) joins us on the line from St. Louis.

ERIC (Caller): Hi, I'm wondering if either of your guests, or both of them, perhaps, know why I have a very dependable physical response, goose bumps on my arms and legs and the back of my neck in certain songs, sometimes instrumental chord changes, sometimes guitar solos, sometimes vocal passages.

And it's very dependable. Anytime I hear that song at that point, I have the same response. I just wonder if you know what's going on.

Ms. MANNES: Well, I couldn't say specifically without knowing the song and more about you, probably, but there are studies which show that the very structure of music creates certain physiological, emotional effects.

I mean, as Daniel Leviton, the neuroscientist says, goose bumps have their origins in the brain. There's one example that another researcher in England has studied, and it's a musical structural device called the appoggiatura, which involves step-like relationship between notes.

But the appoggiatura almost universally creates the emotion of sadness, and that could create goose bumps. There are also, of course, goose bumps created by fear. For example, Hitchcock's "Psycho" score, you know, everybody who listens to that, you know, has chills.

CONAN: Eeeh(ph), eeeh - Yeah, we all remember that. Anybody who's ever seen it remembers that.

ERIC: These are pleasurable responses. And it sounds like the kind of thing that really skilled composers and songwriters would be able to use...

CONAN: Ah, to call, to summon specific emotions. Ani Patel, I wonder.

Mr. PATEL: Yes, well, I also want to point this caller in to some research that has been done by a colleague of mine, Dr. Robert Zatorre at the Montreal Neurological Institute, very elegant experiments, actually having people in brain imagining machines, while they are experiencing these musical chills.

So they bring in their own CDs that give them this response, and like your caller mentioned, they often know the exact moment, down to the chord, where they're going to get that response. And it's pretty reliable. And looking inside the brain to see what's going on.

And this is also - Dan Leviton has been involved in some of this work, and one of the neat findings is the activation of these very ancient reward centers of the brain that have been associated with things like food and reproduction and biologically important behaviors being activated by people listening to instrumental music and getting this response to music.

CONAN: It's the old dopamine rush.

Mr. PATEL: Yes, it's - yes.

CONAN: All right, Eric.

ERIC: If you could put a link to that study or something like it on your website, that would be fabulous.

CONAN: If you send us a link, Ani Patel, we'll put it on our website. Thanks.

Mr. PATEL: Sure, be happy to.

CONAN: All right, after the show, see if you can go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION, and as soon as we get it from Ani Patel - you may have to wait until tomorrow until all this happens. But we'll put it up on our website.

Here's an email from Robert(ph) in Texas: I'm 29 years old, do not care one way or another about music. For years, people in my life have made fun of me and have been astounded how I get through my days without trying to rely on music.

They all have iPods loaded with music, hundreds of CDs. I have a very analytical mind and have always enjoyed math but never music. Is there something wrong with me?

And Elena Mannes, I was surprised to read in your book there's a word for that.

Ms. MANNES: There is, amusia. There's a small percentage of people who have this condition that they can't recognize pitch in a normal fashion. So they just, you know, dont get music.

You know, I used to think that I was tone-deaf and had no musical ability, despite my background, because I didn't sing very well. But it turns out from recent studies that most of us do seem to have an innate ability for pitch and rhythm in some way, but amusics don't at all.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Steve(ph), and Steve's on the line from Cleveland.

STEVE (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Steve, you're on the air, go ahead.

STEVE: Yes, hey, I've been a musician all my life, since I was four or five years old. I'm 50 now. And Eric, the thing about the goose bumps, I think it can be explained very simply because music touches us universally on really three main levels, the first being the primal level, which is the rhythm, the beat, you know, that's just an innate sense.

Then it touches us on the cerebral level, which is the melody and the harmonies and so forth. And then the thing that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up is the soul of the music, which really reaches into our own souls. It's that inexplicable part of music that does make that hair stand up on end.

And I can go into the mathematics and the physics of music, and we can talk about, you know, the science of it ad nauseum. But, you know, there is that soul. That's that - that's what makes a great song. Thank you.

CONAN: Ani, you're troubled by - souls are hard to measure.

Mr. PATEL: Well, I think the listener is right in pointing out that we have these deep responses to music, but I think we have to be a little careful about just thinking that music, per se, drives these responses.

Clearly there are great individual differences. It's our relationship with the music that drives this response. So a very clever control condition that Robert Zatorre did in his experiment on chills was he had everybody switch CDs.

So the music that gives you chills may do absolutely nothing for me and vice versa. So clearly it's not just the structure of the music because that is the same whether you listen to it or whether I listen to it. It's how we interact with it, what we get out of it, what we associate with it.

So we may share this chills response, you and I, but that's not necessarily driven by the same music. So culture and learning have to play an enormous role in how we study music in the brain.

CONAN: And go ahead, Elena.

Ms. MANNES: No, I just wanted to add that I don't think any of the scientists who are very passionate about their work in this field want to take away from the magic of music. But if we really understand what lies behind it - it has so much potential. Music has so much potential to help us and to open up our lives in other ways beyond, you know, just experiencing it as something enjoyable.

CONAN: Let's get Allen(ph) on the line, Allen with us from Minneapolis.

ALLEN (Caller): Hi. Thank you. My son had a traumatic brain injury about three years ago. And our neurological chiropractor has us playing a French artist and a specific track on the CD to help him heal his brain.

And another story is that I had a favorite song years ago. I used to play it every day and I have a cat. And one day the CD just skipped and my cat looked right at the speaker right at that time. And you know, he had to have noticed -I mean, he looks right at the speaker right as it had happened, so...

CONAN: Interesting. I'm not so sure about that. Well, maybe ask Ani Patel about that in a minute. But let's go back to the TBI and the specific track. What singer is it or what musician?

ALLEN: You know, I need(ph) to ask. But it's a French artist and I don't know offhand because I've never heard of it before. She actually just handed me the CD. We played track 11.

CONAN: I see.

ALLEN: But you know, that kind of goes to the universe universitality(ph) or, you know - but not necessarily my son's relationship with the music. You know, she actually, you know, the rhythm, the...

CONAN: Well, I wanted to follow up with Elena Mannes because you uncover -there's speculation that in the future - here in this case it's actively being use for therapy - but that prescriptions of music may become more commonplace.

Ms. MANNES: Well, people are doing it. You know, I certainly can't testify to that, you know, as to its efficacy at this point. But it certainly is something that people are looking at and actually producing - beginning to produce CDs targeting specific conditions such as anxiety, depression. Maybe Ani has some thoughts on that as well.

Mr. PATEL: Yes. What I'd like to point out is that there's a kind of basic difference between using music as a listening kind of therapy, helping people relax and sooth emotions and lower stress, and music as an active therapy in terms of music-making.

There's actually a researcher in Germany, Eckart Altenmuller, who has an Institute for Music and Medicine at the University of Hanover. And he's very interested in how musical exercises can help people regain motor control after stroke. And he's shown through some very interesting studies that by learning to play a musical instrument, even a former non-musician who has weakness in a limb after stroke can regain a lot of dexterity and motor skills, and even more so than by doing the traditional kinds of motor therapists that are done after stroke, because music demands very precise motor skills.

And it can be scaled, so you can start with the very simple things like beating a drum and then work your way up towards playing passages on a piano.

And these things are - patients find this sort of enjoyable as opposed to, say, tying your shoes or buttoning a button or things that are kind of boring and frustrating even when you've had a stroke.

CONAN: Ani Patel is president of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition and wrote the forward to Elena Mannes's book, "The power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I have to say, we have several emails along these lines. Emily in Cincinnati wrote us: Is there any research on the effects of music on autism? I'm aware of music therapy for autistic individuals and others with mental disabilities. Does anyone know why or how that works?

Ms. MANNES: Ani, do you want to...

Mr. PATEL: Oh, yeah. I can jump in briefly and then you can mention your ideas too. I would just point this listener to the work of Pamela Heaton, H-E-A-T-O-N, who works at Goldsmiths College in London, who's doing a lot of work with music and autism. One of the things that they've found that's very interesting is it used to be thought that autistic people didn't necessarily have very strong emotional reactions to music because they don't verbalize about their emotions very much when they listen to music.

But then when they actually attach physiological devices to them and study their responses - emotional responses physiologically - they see they have many of the same emotional responses to music. So music does seemed to be getting into the - getting in there and reaching them. And that has important implications for how do you connect with an autistic person if you're doing a therapy or education or what have you.

Ms. MANNES: Does it have something to do with the connection between the auditory system and the autoimmune system?

Mr. PATEL: Well, between the auditory system and the emotion systems of the brain, certainly. I'm trying to remember. Do you have something about autism in the book?

Ms. MANNES: A little bit. The research seems fairly preliminary to me, so I didn't write at length about it.

Mr. PATEL: Yeah.

Ms. MANNES: I should say the autonomic nervous system - the auditory system is what I meant to say.


Ms. MANNES: I heard there was a theory about a connection between those two systems that explain the effect on autistic patients.

Mr. PATEL: Hmm. I'm not so sure. I mean, one thing that is interesting -another thing that's interesting about autism and music is there's apparently a very high incidence of absolute pitch among autistic individuals and that requires an explanation - they're listening to music in a somewhat different way, it seems, than many of us because absolutely pitch is extremely rare among neurologically normal individuals, one in 10,000, I think.

CONAN: I wanted to get to this email from Benjamin in Portland: Regarding your story about the dancing parrot. I live in Portland and, as any native will tell you, parrots are not the only dancing animal. The Portland Zoo holds concerts frequently. Next to the concert lawn is the elephant exhibit. During the music, the elephants sway and move to the music.

In fact, Ani Patel, you know a little bit about that.

Mr. PATEL: Well, that's a wonderful observation because elephants are also vocal learners. They can imitate sounds, so they do fit into this category of animals that we think may have this latent capacity for moving in time with a beat as opposed to dogs or cats or horses or chimps that don't have this ability to imitate complex sounds. And we think they - that cannot learn. So that's a wonderful anecdote. I'd like to see that myself.

CONAN: Hmm. And we have this comment from Caroline(ph), who writes: Could this new research helps stop the decline of music instruction in our schools? Most schools faced with budget cuts eliminate music and/or art instruction even though the connection between music and mathematics proficiency has been shown. Nationwide, orchestras are being closed or consolidated. What will become of the civilized human without music instruction and exposure?

And Elena Mannes, coming from your family, I would expect you would endorse that.

Ms. MANNES: I certainly do. It's one of my hopes that in a small way this book might encourage people to support music education in the schools. There are recent studies indicating that doing music is as Ani said - not just listening, but singing or playing an instrument from a young age does have some effect on other cognitive abilities, such as verbal ability, cognitive abilities, spatial reasoning. This is not proven yet, but there's, you know, significant evidence that doing music at a young age when we're kids may have long-term effects on other skills.

CONAN: Well, Elena Mannes, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. MANNES: Thank you for having me, a pleasure.

CONAN: The new book is "The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song." The introduction or the foreword written by Ani Patel, our other guest, the president of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, with us today from KPBS, our member station in San Diego. And thanks to you.

Mr. PATEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Up next, the etiquette of air travel. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

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