Music can be soothing; that’s why relaxing music is played during yoga. Music can be energising; that may be why loud music is played at ball games. Music can be used to evoke atmosphere and mood; hence music scores in movies, film, and theatre. Music is very important as a stimulus for the mind.
What it triggers in the brain is probably too complex for us to even imagine. That is why there is such variation in tastes in music. There is not one universal genre of music that appeals to everyone, and one person’s taste is generally not limited to one genre. Or, even if it is not to their taste, a person may learn to like a specific genre in certain circumstances. It all depends on what is happening in the brain at the time of listening to the music.
Because music is so important, I have seen it used as therapy in different ways. It is used as entertainment in nursing homes, whether there is a live performer, or music is played on the radio or from records/tapes/CDs. It is used in Hospice programs to help patients relax. You see it in practice in normal every day settings. Parents sing lullabies to their babies to get them to relax or go to sleep.
Some people claim music can help children understand mathematics. They say it is because they need to understand notes and rhythms. But couldn’t it be because the positive, stimulating effects of music actually trigger some of those complex brain activities that help children to learn?
This may be part of what is happening in stroke patients with “visual neglect” who learn to view the neglected side after listening to music. The stroke has damaged areas in the brain that are involved in learning and integrating signals, not vision. Therefore, the patient may see things on the side damaged by the stroke, but they do not understand how to react to them. These patients only dress on side, eat from one side of the plate, etc. A very limited study in three patients with visual neglect found that if they listened to music of their choice, they were able to identify shapes and colour on the neglected side, as compared to when they listened to music they did not like or to silence. It is suggested that the music has helped create positive emotions that trigger the learning and integrating process in that damaged area of the brain.
It is generally accepted that everyone learns better in a positive and stimulating environment, so this idea is not novel. But the fact that music can be useful in such a devastating condition is very encouraging. A world without music is a sad world, indeed.