Larry Sherman
Big Brains podcst

How your brain benefits from music, with Larry Sherman (Ep. 116)

Scholar explains the neuroscience of how listening to and playing music builds our mind

Larry Sherman
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

Music plays an important role in all of our lives. But listening to music or playing an instrument is more than just a creative outlet or hobby — it’s also scientifically good for us. Research shows that music can stimulate new connections in our brains; keeping our cognitive abilities sharp and our memories alive.

In a new book entitled Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music, Prof. Larry Sherman explores why we all need music for our mental well-being — and how it can even help us later in life.

Sherman is a professor of neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University.

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(Episode published June 29, 2023)

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Paul Rand: The great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” Whether it’s the beautiful sounds of a symphony orchestra or a jazz ensemble, classic rock or hip hop, we all have our own favorite genres, musicians or albums that spice up our day and bring us joy. But could music have an even greater purpose?

Larry Sherman: One of the reasons music probably exists is to bring people together. And I think there’s an evolutionary reason for this, right?

Paul Rand: That’s Larry Sherman, professor of neuroscience at Oregon Health and Science University, and he is co-author of a new book called Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music.

Larry Sherman: Think about all the reasons we use music, religious music, for example. It’s to bring people together. It’s to bring people within communities together. Before we had organized religion, when we were living in caves, we were probably singing together also just to maintain that sense of community amongst ourselves, amongst our groups, our tribes.

Paul Rand: Humanity’s relationship with music goes all the way back to our earliest days. Our brains have evolved alongside this magical feature of reality, and it turns out that music may be doing more to and for our brains than we ever realized.

Larry Sherman: So there’s all these things that are happening when we just are hearing and listening to music, but it also can drive people to do things. And so, I think music is like poetry or like a story, but much more powerful because there’s something more driving about it.

Paul Rand: Sherman’s book compiles some of the most fascinating research on how music impacts the brain. For example, why can listening to sad music be a positive experience?

Larry Sherman: When we have a cathartic experience where we don’t have to go through something that’s sad but we’ve been through sad things in our lives, which can bring us grief. Music is cathartic in that way because we can experience it without having to go through it and we know it’s only temporal. It’s a short temporal period of time that we have to experience that.

Paul Rand: But the benefits of music go beyond just our emotional wellbeing. Sherman has also studied the cognitive benefits of music, like if you learn to play a new instrument.

Larry Sherman: My argument is playing an instrument is probably one of the most challenging things a human brain can do. And it can drive a lot of different processes, one of which is myelination, which I study in my lab. One is neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, and one is synapse formation.

Paul Rand: Almost everyone listens to music every single day, and yet we don’t stop to ask what’s actually happening in our brains. What is the neuroscience of music?

Larry Sherman: And what’s remarkable to me is I’ve had people come up to me after the talks, and I’ve had one now. And they’ve said that they’ve stopped practicing their instruments and the talk or the book have somehow inspired them to go back to instruments, feel like everything’s kicking in high gear again in their brains. And I believe that because I think it, like I said, is such a challenging thing for our brain to do, and it has these consequences that I think help us out in other aspects of our lives.

Paul Rand: Welcome to Big Brains where we translate the biggest ideas and complex discoveries into digestible brain food. Big Brains, little bites from the University of Chicago Podcast Network. I’m your host, Paul Rand. On today’s episode, the Neuroscience of Music. Well, you start this really interesting book with a question, and I’m sure you know it. If an alien landed in this little podcast discussion we’re having and asked us to describe music, what would we say? And so I think I’ll start with you saying in your own words, what is music? How do you answer that alien?

Larry Sherman: So one of my favorite quotes is not mine, is that music is organized sound. That’s Edgar Varèse. But I think it really is a special kind of sound, that musical air vibrations, molecule vibrations and everything else are happening, but in a very special way that gives us this thing that we as humans call music.

Paul Rand: So it’s the vibration of air molecules on the most technical sense. And I guess that idea is if they vibrate, you have to hear them. Somebody has to be there to hear them, right?

Larry Sherman: So if you’re out in the woods, a violin accidentally plays itself and there’s nothing there to perceive it, I guess you wouldn’t necessarily call it music. Because for me, music is a perceiver taking that information from those vibrating air molecules and turning it into something that we perceive as music. And that’s something I think that’s unique to at least the primate brain. Those air molecules, they come in, they get into that part of our eardrum mechanism, and near the cochlea. The cochlea just has these sets of canals that actually respond to different frequencies of sound. So that then triggers all these different neurons that then fire into our brain to our central nervous system up into our auditory cortex. From there, it goes to all sorts of places. I mean, we have to A, recognize that it is music. B, sort out the different parts of music, rhythm, the tone, pitch, the timbre, all these other things. That’s all being done in all these different parts of our brains.

Paul Rand: Well, there are many, many sounds, of course, whether it’s traffic or horns or voice or whatever the case is. How in the world does our brain interpret music as being music?

Larry Sherman: So there’s a fascinating study that looked into this question several years ago, and what they did in this study was they put people in an MRI machine to scan their brains, and they played all these different sounds for them, and then they broke the sounds down into categories including music. And what was remarkable was there’s a part of the brain, the first place in the brain where sound information comes into is the auditory cortex. And in the auditory cortex, there were these cells that were lighting up in response to music that weren’t lighting up in response to other sounds. And so that says to me that at some point in our development, our brain sorts out categories of sounds, and music happens to be one of those categories. The sound of a toilet flushing, that crescendo of water is not music, it’s a sign of functional plumbing, but the sound of a guitar strumming is the sound of something that’s musical, and your brain’s sorting that out right at the beginning.

Paul Rand: From the time that we’re born, we start to recognize these sounds and how they make us feel.

Larry Sherman: We do tend to have a very early recognition for particular tonal patterns that make us feel like, “Ah, this is a sad song, or this is a happy song.” One of my daughters, I’ll never forget, I was playing piano one time and it was something in a minor key. And she literally came up to me, she was only three. And she said, “Dad, that is so sad. Can you please play something happier?” So I mean, even at a very early age, our brains can kind of just say something about those tonal patterns. And it probably has to do with very early stages of development where we hear patterns and associate sadness or happiness or other emotional qualities to the sounds.

Paul Rand: Picking up on tonal patterns from an early age is how we develop our own taste in music. It explains why some people like upbeat music while others prefer something a bit more melancholy.

Larry Sherman: So there’s all these ideas around people who are more empathetic tend to like sad music a little better.

Paul Rand: This isn’t the pleasurable compassion theory, is it?

Larry Sherman: That’s the idea. And so there’s this theory idea that sad tones bring up grief types of situations where we’re observing other people’s grief. And when we do that, we have a sense of empathy. One of the things about empathy we know is it’s a trait that’s actually adaptive. It helps us maintain the species, obviously. And so the idea is that when we experience empathy, we’re actually experiencing some level of pleasure. In the back of our brains, there’s some dopamine release that’s happening that’s making us think this is a actually kind of a pleasurable thing to feel empathy for others.

Paul Rand: Very interesting.

Larry Sherman: It’s not to start to say that you’re a bad person, that you feel good that someone else is having a bad experience. It’s more that just being empathetic is a rewarding experience, and it’s a rewarding experience because we want it to be, as a species, we want to feel good when we’re empathetic. And so that kind of feeds back on the idea of why sad songs do that for us.

Paul Rand: As it turns out, what you perceive as happy or sad music might have to do with where you come from.

Larry Sherman: One of the studies that I thought was fascinating was the [foreign language 00:09:05] people. They took a group of people that are isolated who had not heard western music, and they played a group of consonant chords for that group of people and these dissonant chords that are kind of jarring to most people in the West. And what’s interesting is the response to the people who had not heard Western music before, they didn’t mind. They didn’t mind that there were the dissonant chords. They reacted similarly to the consonant and the dissonant chords. But when you play it from people from Boston or Bolivia, that’s jarring to them. And so again, that suggests that this whole notion of consonants versus dissonance is something that we learn.

Paul Rand: And this is why some of us love country music, while some of us love heavy metal.

Larry Sherman: That’s another interesting thing about music. And our music preference over our lives, there’s a period of time mainly during our adolescence where we form really strong ties to particular types of music. And that’s true not only in terms of the genres, but also in terms of cultural differences in music. For example, Chinese opera. Most westerners would hear that as noise until they came to appreciate it. I kind of felt the same way about the music of Bartok, to be honest. And then someone sat me down and we started thinking about Bartok more, and then I really came to appreciate it and hear it more and now I like it. So what we like and dislike changes over the course of our lives, but there are certain things and patterns of music that we really kind of get stuck on during our adolescence.

Paul Rand: This relationship between music and the past, in other words, music and memory, is actually one of the most fascinating ways that music interacts with our brain. There are emotional responses, of course, to music, but there’s also a connection between the limbic system, which guides memory formation in music. And I’m wondering what that connection is, and does that tell us that if we’re trying to study and remember something, that we should have music in the background?

Larry Sherman: That’s a great question. And I’ve had huge debates with my children about this when they were growing up and doing their homework at home with the headphones on. So obviously memory is a huge part of our experience in music, both in terms of learning it and hearing it and liking it. So if you’re sitting and trying to study and you hear music that is incredibly emotional to you, you’re going to have all your attention drawn away from whatever it is you’re doing into that music. If you’re playing some music in the background that doesn’t have lyrics and it’s just something that’s not so familiar that you don’t love, it probably has the opposite effect. It actually may enhance your attention.

Paul Rand: And you actually talked about if you get stuck, you’ll go play music, go hit the piano for a little bit. And in your personal case, unstick you a little bit.

Larry Sherman: So I write a lot of grants. I write a lot of papers for my work. And if I’m just having writer’s block or I’m just trying to work through an idea, I’ll go and just sit and improvise at the piano or play some songs that I know for half an hour or so. It kind of resets my brain and I think it may wake my brain up quite a bit too. Just sitting at the piano for half an hour and just banging something out will completely reset my thinking and I’ll come back and the ideas come to me.

Paul Rand: There’s, of course, all the work with Alzheimer’s and people really still having that affinity for music and remembering songs. And I remember my mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s and could still sit at the piano and play things that I couldn’t imagine where those were coming from.

Larry Sherman: It is remarkable. Actually, I was at a memory care center one time, and people I talked to in the center said, “Hey, come check this out.” And there was a woman in particular in the center who was completely nonverbal, had very severe dementia at the time. And they put on a record for her, and she started singing. And then what was remarkable was after she sang, she actually spoke for a few minutes talking about the song and talking about her life or something. We’ve seen this time and time again that people who have significant damage to the brain still can reserve a lot of their musical function. And that probably has to do with the fact that music covers so much territory in her brain in terms of how it’s processed.

Paul Rand: How do you mean by that?

Larry Sherman: So we think about language and there are really various distinct areas in the brain that are really associated with language. But when you look at what’s happening when we play or engage in music, so many more areas of the brain are lighting up on these fMRI studies. So if you have damage that’s affecting your ability to initiate some aspect of speech and maybe a few other scattered areas of damage, there’s enough musical circuitry intact that you can probably retrieve some of that musical function. I think of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She was shot in the head. She had significant brain damage, couldn’t initiate speech, and the way they got her to start talking again in part was through musical therapy. So she could sing, she couldn’t speak.

Gabrielle Giffords: (Singing)

Tape: Remember at this point, she couldn’t say the word light. Suddenly there she was singing that word and a whole lot more.

Gabrielle Giffords: (Singing This Little Light of Mine)

Larry Sherman: And so they got her singing and then singing phrases. And then over time, that actually pushed her to rewire the brain through those musical circuits that were left. That would then help her with her speech circuits.

Tape: Giffords also played America on the French horn. She picked up the instrument again after the shooting and incorporated it into her regular regime of therapy and rebuilding.

Larry Sherman: So it’s a remarkable trait of music that covers so much reserve areas that if you lose something in one area of the brain, you can still keep that musical circuitry intact in other parts of the brain. There’s almost like a human theme song for everything we do. There’s reasons why, for example, couples often have their song because we actually associate certain music with certain events in our lives in very powerful ways. And so if there’s something that was a significant event in your life and there was music playing at it, we tend to remember that music. And that music then tends to, by the way, bring back those memories. It is kind of a soundtrack to life in a way.

Paul Rand: So is music then being used as a therapy to really slow down a progression of dementia? And is that something that’s commonly done at this point?

Larry Sherman: There’s ongoing studies to look at the possibility that people with musical talent, for example, may have more reserve. They may have more to lose when dementia comes along. That’s one idea. Certainly music is being used, as I mentioned, to help people maintain some functionality with regards to emotional control and everything else. It certainly helps with agitation. For example, people with dementia often have severe agitation. So music therapy is definitely being utilized already. The degree to which it can actually slow down progression once you have dementia is questionable. I don’t think there’s good data on that yet. But again, those are ongoing studies that I think the jury’s still out to some degree.

Paul Rand: And then let’s go to the opposite life scale of actually being in utero and the idea of playing music to children and babies, and how does that play itself out?

Larry Sherman: I actually had a friend when the whole Mozart effect thing came out. So there was this idea that listening to Mozart somehow made you literally smarter. If only that were true.

I think it was published in Nature. So the problem was that particular study had no real controls to it. And when people went back and did it again, it turned out it was the other thing we were talking about earlier. Mozart tends to be very upbeat, lively music with lots of notes and that will cause increased arousal in your brain. So your attention is coming online at a higher rate, at a higher level. So if you bring a bunch of college students into a basement in a psychology department, and who knows what they’ve been out doing the night before, and then you play this lively music for them. Of course it’s going to wake them up and they’re going to probably perform better on any kind of task that you give them.

So when people did the controls, that turned up to be not the case, and actually, I had a friend who actually put a speaker on her belly when she was pregnant. And all I could think is that kid’s going to hate Mozart. And sadly, it’s not that simple. Music listening does have benefits, don’t get me wrong. I think there’s incredible benefits to the brain. It activates the brain in good and important ways, but just listening to music is not going to necessarily raise your IQ in any significant way.

Paul Rand: It’s not just listening to music that has these powerful effects on our brains. Learning to play music also has enormous benefits, which Sherman has been studying in his lab. That’s after the break. If you’re getting a lot out of the important research shared on Big Brains, there’s another University of Chicago Podcast Network show you should check out. It’s called Not Another Politics Podcast. Not Another Politics podcast provides a fresh perspective on the biggest political stories, not through opinions and anecdotes, but through rigorous scholarship, massive data sets, and a deep knowledge of theory. If you want to understand the political science behind the political headlines, then listen to Not Another Politics Podcast, part of the University of Chicago Podcast Network.

On the other side of listening to music is the concept of making music. And it sounds like that the idea of the neuroscience of making music does provide some pretty significant benefits, doesn’t it?

Larry Sherman: Three areas that I study in my lab, one of which is myelination, one is neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, and one is synapse formation. And there’s evidence of all three of these things happening when we engage in music that way. One of the things that we do when we learn new music is we probably are engaging changes in synapse, the connections between nerves. We may be making new nerves when we’re practicing and learning new music. And so basically, you can use a magnetic stimulation of a part of the brain and then look and see synaptic connectivity that’s linked to, for example, finger movements. And so this was done with pianists, of course, and people who are not trained to be pianists. And you could actually then measure the fact that there’s more synaptic connectivity between that motor area and the finger in pianists versus non-pianists. And so that’s just a great example of the structural things that happen in people who really push themselves to learn music or musical instrument. So a lot of that happens in a part of the hippocampus, which is part of the limbic system.

Paul Rand: The limbic system. Think of it like the memory and learning department of your brain.

Larry Sherman: And the limbic system is very important for memory formation. And in fact, when we engage in learning a new instrument or learning something else, we generate new synapses. And these are connections between neurons. One neuron could have thousands of different neurons interacting with it through these synapses. There’s literally trillions of synapses in the human brain for the billions of neurons and these synapses are constantly coming and going. They’re strengthening themselves and weakening themselves, when we rehearse something or we come back and remember something and try to play it again from deep memory. My big message is that when you’re practicing an instrument and learning a new instrument in particular, or practicing some piece of music that’s really challenging to you, think of what your brain’s doing. I mean, think about a violin, for example. You have to hold the violin in a particular position.

In one hand, you’ve got the bow. In the other hand, you’re reading music. So you’re getting visual information coming into your brain, going to the back of your brain where the visual cortex is, the occipital lobe. That’s then projecting to all these other areas of the brain to interpret what those notes mean on the page. That’s being then turned into motor commands that are telling you to move your fingers and your arms and your hands in very specific ways and very specific amounts of pressure and position. At the same time, that information has to go the other direction.

So your sensory neurons have to be firing in response to that pressure, that position, and everything else back up to the brain to let you know where things are and how they went. And things like learning to play the piano or violin or another instrument, or even really high level singing are probably capable of driving the generation of new neurons. What happens is you don’t need very many new neurons. It may be one or two literally, but think about how a circuit works. You put one new wire into a circuit, it can change the entire function of that circuit. And so this is something that we think is happening in musicians who are challenging themselves or people who are learning a new instrument.

Paul Rand: That covers synapse and neuron formation. But what about myelination?

Larry Sherman: One of the things we know that music practice does is it can generate myelin. So there’s a substance myelin that I study in my lab from my day job. What myelin does is if you’re a nerve cell, myelin wraps around and kind of insulates these axons. Those are the stretches of the wire coming off the neuron. And when it does that, it highly increases the speed at which the nerve impulse travels. So I always like to tell people, if you are a myelinated axon of a neuron, a nerve cell, it’s like driving on the Autobahn in Germany at midnight where there’s no speed limit and there’s no traffic. So you’ll be going 200 miles an hour without anybody bothering you. If you lose that myelin, I don’t know what the worst highway in Chicago is, but in Portland at rush hour, it’s I-5 at the 84 interchange, and you’re lucky to be going two miles an hour, and that’s what happens when you lose myelin.

So it’s really about that difference in speed from 200 miles an hour to two miles an hour. And myelin when it’s gone, it slows connections down between different brain areas. And so my lab is interested in multiple sclerosis. That’s one of the big things we study in my lab. And it’s a disease where your immune system attacks your myelin and people who have MS have real problems with the sensory, cognitive and motor functions.

Paul Rand: Now, there is also something about a condition called amusia, and help me understand that a little bit better. What that condition is.

Larry Sherman: It’s really a person who cannot conceive music. When they hear it, they don’t process it properly. At least some patients with ammusia, it turns out it’s a processing speed problem. And patients who have this deficit in myelin, it slows everything down and they can’t properly process it. So I can’t even imagine what that’s like, but it is a condition. Now, I mean, I’ve had a lot of people ask me, “Okay, so your book is Every Brain Needs Music. But what about people with amusia? Obviously, music’s not very useful to them. Actually, all the things we do in conducting and interacting with music could still benefit those people. And in fact, you could even argue that learning an instrument might somehow help people who have myelin deficits in places.

Paul Rand: When you think about all of these benefits that we’re talking about of learning the instrument, of playing it and so forth. Most folks, again, if they have children, are thinking, “My goodness, I knew it was critical, and I’m reinforced that I have encouraged, insisted, forced my child to play.” And there’s others that are saying, “Man, I thought there was something to this, but I had to really get them going.” What age do you encourage parents to get their children started, and is there a point where you would say it’s too late and they’ve lost some of that benefit?

Larry Sherman: I don’t know that it’s ever really too late. I think there are distinct benefits to getting kids involved in music early in life. These kinder music classes, I think, probably are doing something good. There have been some studies to suggest that kids who are deprived of music early in life, there’s a study of orphans in Eastern Europe, for example, having some real issues with a number of cognitive challenges. So I think getting kids involved in music early is important. I’m always amazed when I go back and look at how many times school districts have canceled music programs as the first thing they cut, right? And not realizing the cognitive deficits that they’re imposing on these children by taking this away from them.

Paul Rand: If you’ve never learned how to read music or took an interest in joining band or orchestra as a kid, don’t fret.

Larry Sherman: It’s never too late to pick up an instrument.

Paul Rand: Sherman says the benefits are always there waiting for you, thanks to a concept we’re familiar with here on Big Brains, neuroplasticity.

Larry Sherman: The reality is our brain is incredibly plastic throughout our lives, even when in very old age. And so the fact that we can push our brains to do new things like learn how to play a piano or a violin, or to sing particular songs in very challenging ways is because our brains are plastic enough to actually rewire themselves to change these different things I talked about before myelination and neurogenesis and synapse formation. So these things are constantly and dynamically changing in our brains all the time. It’s also why when we have brain damage, we used to think there was nothing we could do for people, but the reality is we just need to tinker with things in the brain to make those changes happen. So if there is a stroke, for example, that damages a particular area of the brain, those cells are lost. But it turns out we can actually restore those cells or actually wire around the damage to reconnect to other parts of the brain and make that brain functional again.

Paul Rand: I want to kind of come toward the end of our discussion really thinking about not only the learning and the playing, but there was also some studies that have been done about the benefits of playing in groups. And I think you continue to see folks that will seek out whether it’s a quartet or a community or chestra or a band, talk about some of those benefits that go into the actual being in a group and playing.

Larry Sherman: So these data to me, are remarkable, and there’s multiple studies supporting this. One of the things that blew me away was, for example, choirs. So singing in the shower by yourself is fine. If you sing at a barbershop quartet, you’ll actually have a greater release of endorphins and dopamine.

Paul Rand: Very interesting.

Larry Sherman: Well, one of the really cool things is that it actually reduces pain. So if you’re actually someone who suffers from chronic pain while you are singing in that group, much more so than singing by yourself, you actually forget about your pain. And what’s remarkable is if you go from the barbershop quartet to, let’s say, a community choir, the effect is bigger on the individuals. There’s even more endorphin release and more dopamine release. And if you go down to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, it’s huge. It’s remarkable.

Paul Rand: So you’re encouraging most of our listeners to try to get into the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at this point?

Larry Sherman: Well, I don’t know about that, but I think doing anything in a group, and I think this is true for people playing in bands too, or symphonies. So the second thing though that happens is that combination of neurochemistry also leads to feelings of acceptance and tolerance within a group. So you come into a group situation where you may be on the outside or feeling unaccepted by the people around you, and now you’re in this group and you have this incredible sense of acceptance within the group. I always joke with people that if only we could get Congress to sing. I think they should all sing twice a day and see if that helps. I think it would make a difference. I really do, because it’s such a strong effect. It’s remarkable. So I think this is a powerful thing that our brains are doing and a powerful use of music, and probably one of the reasons why music evolves, is such a powerful tool to bring people together.

Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the University of Chicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please leave us a rating and review. The show is hosted by Paul M Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp And Leah Ceasrine. Thanks for listening.

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