Neuroscience is Changing the Face of Music Therapy—And We Should Watch That Happen

It's no surprise that many people accept the power of music to improve their mood. Classical music therapy is grounded mostly in the social sciences like psychology, however. It has been constrained by the assumption that if music is helping you, the difference is in your mind, not your brain. In other words, there is an assumption that music triggers emotions that in turn affect the mood, just like anything else can trigger emotions and feelings of well-being.

In contrast, neuroscientists are seeing music in new ways, as a hard-wired language of the brain, and exploring how music might not just be helping us get into certain moods, but into ways of thinking as well.

Mood music

In an electroencephalography (EEG) study of the effects of Hindustani ragas on the brain, Dr. Shantala Hegde of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in India found 20 subjects without musical training exhibited increased positive brain wave frequency power after listening to Hindustani ragas. Hegde points out that music therapy is now moving towards a neuroscience model that focuses on particular elements of music and their effect on cognitive, language, and sensorimotor functions.

Other recent research focused on people on the autism spectrum sheds more light on the ways the brain processes music. In this work, Dr. Adam Ockelford defines absolute pitch (AP)—the ability to name a note you hear without context or effort—as a central tool for people on the spectrum, allowing them to listen, improvise, and play. It allows children to tinker with sounds and tunes that are familiar, and to experiment with sound in ways that lead to a deep understanding of musical structure.

While only 1 in 10,000 neurotypical people have AP, it's far more common on the autism spectrum, occurring at about 8 percent, or 1 in 13. And about 45 percent of people who are either born blind or blind early in infancy have AP.

But even those with AP seem to be influenced by whatever cultural structures inform the music they are exposed to. For example, Ockelford found that some of his most gifted students with AP could much more easily reproduce music they heard that followed cultural conventions that were familiar to them.

Musical tools

Studies of the ways that the brains of people who have limited access to sensory data can use music in place of that data shows us a lot about how the brain can adapt the tools it uses based on its operational constraints. For example, children with more limited sensory input, such as those born blind, or blind and autistic, had highly developed pitch and senses of musicality. These became powerful tools for them, allowing them to explore relationships in the world around them.

Music therapists using traditional Indian music are taking advantage of the fact that coordination of melodies (raga) and rhythm (laya and tala) is complex mental process that engages the brain across both hemispheres.

The point isn't so much to learn traditional Indian music—or to develop perfect pitch. It is about using the processes to spark and fuel learning across spheres, and to use musical patterns and concepts to open up new neural pathways. Going way beyond moody cause and effect, music can work in tandem with the brain, not just the mind.