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Musical "Chills" among Topics of Music Therapy Symposium

Noted neurologists and music therapists share findings at Berklee colloquium.

Dr. Anne Blood, a neurologist from Massachusetts General Hospital, has researched the euphoric effects of music on the human brain.
Photo by Mark Small

On October 4, Berklee's Department of Music Therapy presented a unique and innovative research symposium in music and neurology that addressed the study of music's effect on the brain, and the practical application of this research in the field of music therapy. Attended by the college's own music therapy students as well as members of the Greater Boston medical community, the event showcased the latest findings in music-and-cognition research. It also provided a forum for developing a shared research agenda—one that can benefit scientists, music therapists, and patients.

Participating in the symposium were distinguished music therapists Kathleen Howland, Ph.D., MT-BC, of the New England Conservatory, and Concetta Tomaino, D.A., MT-BC, director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Medical Center in New York; as well as neurologists Anne Blood, Ph.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital, Mark Jude Tramo, MD., Ph.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital, and Gottfried Schlaug, M.D., of Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center.

Among the fascinating research presented at the symposium were the findings of a study conducted by Dr. Anne Blood, who explained her theory of the "chilling effect" that music can have on the brain. Most music lovers have experienced the chills when listening to a particularly powerful piece of music. For many, this overwhelming emotional and physical response feels like a shiver down the spine or tiny hairs raised on the back of the neck.

Blood and her colleague Dr. Robert Zatorre wanted to observe brain function as this phenomenon occurs. So they used positron-emission-tomography (PET) imaging to look inside the brains of 10 musicians.

Each subject in the study selected a piece of instrumental music that consistently gave him or her the chills. They then listened to the music through headphones. Dr. Blood used PET imaging to monitor various regions of the subject's brain as they were stimulated by the music. To establish a basis for comparison, the subjects also listened to music selected by other test subjects as well as random noise, and silence.

Results of the study showed that when the music selection was made by the listener, a euphoric response was produced in the brain, triggering activity in the same areas that are stimulated by reward, motivation, arousal, and emotion. According to Blood's study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal, "These brain structures are known to be active in response to other euphoria-inducing stimuli, such as food, sex, and drugs of abuse."

"A lot of people think that music is like a drug," she told the Berklee audience. "The nice thing about music is that you're not putting a chemical into your body."

While it seems natural that human beings would have a pleasurable reaction to food and sex, both of which are required for self-preservation and the perpetuation of the species, the reason why humans respond so strongly to music remains a mystery. Dr. Blood believes that as humans evolved, their brains developed the capacity to respond euphorically not only to matters of physical necessity but to abstract stimulation such as music. And because music so positively effects our emotional well-being, it has become important to us physiologically as well as culturally.

Results of the chills study also showed decreased activity in the areas of the brain that process danger and anxiety. "This says to me," continued Blood, "that in order to experience this kind of euphoria, the part of the brain [that responds to danger] has to shut down. You can't be euphoric and scared at the same time."

The study also revealed that the brain processes consonant and dissonant sounds in very different ways. Dissonant sounds affected areas of the brain involving memory and anxiety, while consonant sounds stimulated areas involved in pleasant emotional responses. The results of Blood's study may be validating through science what composers and performers of music have known for centuries.

Blood hastened to add that music's ability to produce the chills is entirely subjective. All 10 of the subjects in the study selected classical music, but jazz and rock also can affect listeners just as powerfully, she said. Proof of this subjectivity can be found in a person's response to music they did not select themselves. As each individual listened to a piece of music selected by one of the other nine subjects, "no one responded similarly to someone else's music," Blood said.

A significant aspect of Blood's findings is that almost all of the brain's response to music takes place at the subcortical level, that is in nerve centers below the cerebral cortex, which is the region of the brain where abstract thought occurs. Our brains process music, therefore, without really thinking about it. "It looks like the emotional part of music is getting at something more fundamental than cognition," Blood explained.

Blood plans to continue studing music's myriad affects on the brain. Currently she is conducting a new study using PET imaging to examine the brains of individuals suffering from focal dystonia, a neurological disorder that affects musicians. The disorder causes affected muscles to remain in a contracted state, resulting in loss of control. It is not a degenerative condition but is caused by brain chemistry "going awry," Blood said.

Much additional research will be needed before this chemistry can be fully understood. However, Blood hopes her ongoing studies will result in a deeper understanding of music's neurochemical effects. In due course, this research will become extremely valuable to music therapists who will be able to apply Blood's findings to the treatment of disorders caused by irregular brain chemistry.

In their seminars, Drs. Concetta Tomaino and Kathleen Howland drew on their experiences as music therapists to demonstrate music's healing effects on the brain. Stroke and Alzheimer's disease are two types of neurological dysfunction that respond well to music therapy, they said. They spoke of stroke patients recovering lost speech and motor function and how music therapy can trigger memory and object recognition in Alzheimer's patients.

In his presentation, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug made comparisons between the brains of professional musicians and those of nonmusicians. His findings indicate that professional musicians tend to have larger motor cortices than non-musicians and that years of repetitive practice can strengthen existing synapses and even lead to the formation of new ones.

Dr. Mark Tramo pointed to ways that neurologists and music therapists can collaborate to create a shared research agenda. Future music-and-cognition research could lead to breakthroughs in treating dyslexia as well as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Tramo called for more exploration of the possible effect that music can have on psychoimmunology and of the influence of emotional states on the central nervous and immune systems. Because music has the power to manipulate emotion, it could be helpful in the treatment of psychosomatic illnesses and infectious diseases.

Dr. Suzanne Hanser, chair of the Music Therapy Department, feels that one of the major goals of music/brain research should be to help people through music. "In establishing a new research agenda for music and neurology with some of the world's leading experts," Hanser said, "Berklee is leading the way for important collaborations between neurologists, musicians, and music therapists."

—Sarah Godcher