Few people understand the powerful influence that music has on the frontal lobe. Music enters the brain through its emotional regions.
Depending on the type of music, it can either influence the brain beneficially or detrimentally. Music therapists tell us that certain types of music, such as rock with its syncopated rhythm, bypass the frontal lobe and thus escape our ability to reason and make judgments about it. Evidence suggests that it, like television, can produce a hypnotic effect. For many years some have argued that rock music was ruining America’s youth. Recently a neurobiologist and a physicist teamed up to put this generalization to a test. They designed a study to evaluate the neurological reaction of mice to different musical rhythms. For eight weeks they exposed each of three groups of mice to different music settings. One group heard rock-like disharmonic drum beats playing softly in their environment; a second group heard classical music, while the third heard no music whatsoever. All the mice went through a standard maze test (with food at the end of the maze). On the first day, all three groups performed equally well. They groped about the maze in search of food. By the end of eight weeks, however, it was noted that the second and third groups had learned the direct path to the food. The “rock group,” however, was still groping for it, taking much longer to find the food than the other two groups.
Next there was a three week break in their maze training without music followed by maze re-tests to see how much knowledge they had retained of the maze’s course, and to see if the effect of the rock beat had worn off. Again the rock group performed poorly. They continued to have difficulty remembering how to get to their food, while the other two groups still found it quickly. The rock group seemed almost to be starting from scratch. They groped around and seemed disoriented. Both the control group and the harmonic group, on the other hand, could run the maze considerably faster, proving that their learning had stuck.
To determine why the poor performers were having so much trouble, the researchers examined their brains, looking for changes in the hippocampus, a region in the temporal lobe near the brain stem, which is usually associated with alertness, memory, and learning. They found evidence of abnormal branching and sprouting of the nerve cells, and also disruptions in the normal amounts of messenger RNA [ribonucleic acid], a chemical crucial to memory storage.
The researchers concluded that the culprit causing the memory and learning problems was the music’s rhythm, not its harmonic or melodic structure. The theory is that certain musical rhythms help to synchronize natural biological rhythms, thus enhancing body functions, while other rhythms tend to clash with, or disrupt, those internal rhythms. This is not surprising since all of our body systems function in rhythm. The study’s authors postulate that if these natural rhythms are disrupted by some kind of disharmony, detrimental effects can result, including permanent learning difficulties. This could help explain why rock music listeners are more prone to use drugs and engage in extramarital sex, and why heavy metal listeners are much more likely to consider suicide. Not only did the disharmonic rock-like music cause damage to the temporal lobes, it also caused atrophy of the frontal lobe. This atrophy would be expected to affect moral worth, learning, and reasoning power.
Harmonious types of hymns and symphonies, on the other hand, can produce a very beneficial frontal lobe response. This is the kind of musical environment in which our children should be raised—music that can produce a positive rather than a negative effect. Classical music has been demonstrated to help college students learn spatial relationships in geometry. A study showed that listening to Mozart piano sonatas significantly increased spatial temporal reasoning. Interestingly, Mozart began composing music at the age of four.
In a follow-up of the Mozart study, children three to five years of age who received eight months of group singing and keyboard lessons scored significantly higher on the “object assembly” task (arranging pieces of a puzzle to form a meaningful whole, requiring frontal lobe function) when compared to children in the same pre-school who did not receive music lessons. Another study showed that musicians who possess perfect pitch were soundly exposed to music before the age of seven.
The impact of music on shaping the character (and hence the frontal lobe) was recognized at least 23 centuries ago. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher of the fourth century B.C., recognized that music can either be beneficial or detrimental to our character, depending on the kind of music we expose ourselves to. He wrote, “Music directly represents the passions or states of the soul—gentleness, anger, courage, temperance, and their opposites and other qualities; hence, when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion he becomes imbued with the same passion; and if over a long time he habitually listens to the kind of music that rouses ignoble [degraded or vulgar] passions his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form. In short, if one listens to the wrong kind of music he will become the wrong kind of person; but, conversely, if he listens to the right kind of music he will tend to become the right kind of person.” Aristotle unwittingly referred to the frontal lobe, where we now know the seat of our character resides.
Dr. Neil Nedley, M.D., Proof Positive, Nedley Publishing Co., Ardmore, Oklahoma, May 1999, excerpt from chapter, “The Frontal Lobe.”