Sunday, December 2, 2018

Your Brain on Strings

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins,
and Ivana Truong

Music unifies us, it's enjoyable, and as it turns out, beneficial to our health. A review of 400 studies done by Professor Daniel J. Levitin suggests that music can increase the quantity of certain antibodies and immune cells. After just 50 minutes of listening, participants had increased levels of antibodies. Interestingly, depending on music preferences or genre, the effect changed. Listening to happy, dancing music caused more of a boost than a random playlist of songs.

Image result for your brain listening to music
Comparing the speech interpretation of participants of the Harmony Project after 1 or 2 years of music lessons
This immune effect may be attributed to music's ability to reduce stress, which is well studied. For example, another one of the reviewed studies compared two groups of patients before surgery. One group listened to music, while the other took an anti-anxiety drug. Shockingly, the patients who listened to music were less stressed, both in personal anxiety ratings and hormonally. Another study had participants listen to music during surgery while under anesthetic. Results showed that listening to music lowered stress hormones during the surgery. Besides immune system improvement and stress reduction, studies suggest everything from pain reduction and improved blood flow to better grades.

A video showing how music preference may impact musical benefits

Scientists were able to track the brain activity of violinist Jennifer Koh, resident artist of Duke University, while she listened, read, and imagined playing music

Many of these benefits are caused by the fact that listening to music engages the entire brain, which is very unique. Playing music causes even more engagement, and is even better for your brain. When playing music, the more mathematical left brain is being used for counting, the more creative right brain is being used for musical expression, and both hemispheres are used for the fine motor control that playing an instrument requires. This can improve memory, cause better reaction times, and even physically alter the brain. Since music involves so much of both hemispheres, musicians are often found to have a larger "bridge" between the hemispheres, called the corpus callosum.


In string musicians in particular, the part of the brain controlling the left hand fingers is more responsive. When scientists looked at the sensory motor strip of the brain, which controls movement and physical sensations, they found that although string musicians had a motor strip of the same size as non-musicians, more of the space was dedicated to the left hand. The difference was even greater in musicians that had started at a young age. Another study on cello training suggests that during musical training, the auditory-motor cortex is reorganized. These effects may be specific to string musicians because they require very precise finger movements to determine pitch. This means string musicians have to hear pitch and correct it almost instantaneously.

Another string instrument, the harp, has been found to have many health benefits. Ron Price, a musician who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, discovered incredible results when he started playing the harp after he had lost the ability to play french horn, his previous instrument. After just a short time, his condition improved substantially. His lost motor function had come back, but only as long as he played the harp regularly. After this experience, Price founded Healing Harps, which was a group of about 100 musicians who all suffered from disabilities. All members experienced improvement after learning harp.

a video from Mayo clinic explaining how they use harp therapy

There are several theories behind why harps are particularly beneficial. One is that the harp is played close to the thymus gland, which plays a large role in the immune system. The vibrations may regulate the gland, improving the health of the player. The harp's benefits may also be because of the playing position. The player is wrapped around the harp, so the vibrations may affect the player more than other instruments. Cellos are played in a similar position, with the instrument resting on the player's shoulder and the player wrapped around the instrument. So, though it hasn't been studied, cellos may provide similar benefits.

Studying the effects of music is incredibly difficult. Exactly why or what is happening is often impossible to determine, at least right now. However, it's clear that music, whether you're listening or playing it, can benefit everyone.

How complex is the brain engagement during violin playing? Watch this video of brain surgery on a professional violinist.

Interested in more in depth research and studies? We highly recommend Daniel J. Levitin's book "This Is Your Brain on Music".

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