Thought Leadership

Music and the brain

By Colin Walls

Music seems to appear in all human cultures. And, for most people, it is a source of pleasure. To me, this suggests that there is something special about the form of notes and chords and rhythms. Furthermore, it makes me wonder if this can be a useful tool – can we use this characteristic in some practical way? …

The key thing about music is that it is all mathematics. For example, Middle C is 440Hz. The next C up on the keyboard is 880Hz and so on. The frequency of the notes between the two Cs is computed by multiplying the frequency of the previous one by 2 ^ 1/12 [=1.05946]. This mathematical relationship makes the notes sound nice and chords sound even better. Some music takes advantage of small deviations from this clean pattern – think jazz, for example – and that gives a different kind of pleasure [to some people anyway].

So, apart from just sounding nice, what other effects does music have own the brain? We all know, that it can affect moods, but how much further can it go?

I heard an interesting story about a study of some nuns who lived in a remote order. They were well known for living to a great age and not exhibiting any dementia. As researchers were curious about their longevity, they performed autopsies on a few of them. To their surprise, they found that their brains were riddled with structures indicative of Alzheimer’s. How come they showed no symptoms? The conclusion was that it was to do with music; these nuns spent a lot of their lives enveloped in music – they were always singing – and this protected them.

On the radio, I heard an article about music and mindfulness. Some music has been designed that actually helps the listener stay in the present and their minds not stray into the past or the future. Sadly, there was no discussion on how this music was developed or how the claims of its efficacy were verified. But I thought that it sounded quite a positive development.

It is a well-known fact that people suffering from epilepsy may have an attack induced by flashing [strobe] lights. Is this a similar, but rather negative, effect of a frequency input to the brain – similar to music, but delivered visually instead of aurally? That would make sense to me. I am concerned, as, in the last few years, flashing lights have become more common. This is because it seems that the most common mode of failure for LED lighting is for the driver electronics to fail and the LED to start flashing annoyingly.

I have been wondering how much this knowledge about frequencies and the response by the brain could be exploited. Maybe it has all been researched already, but I would imagine that looking at an FMRI scan of someone’s brain, while exposing them to a variety of notes, chords and dischords might my very interesting. Maybe it could lead to some powerful, non-intrusive therapies for neurological conditions. Anyone after a PhD project?


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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at