Music and the Brain Essays

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Music and the Brain

In Macedonian hills, the music of Orpheus was said to possess certain magical qualities, having powers strong enough to alter the very behavior of people and animals. Among its abilities, the notes of Orpheus' lyre were said to calm the guard-dog of Hades (1), to cause the evil Furies to cry, and to tame the deadly voices of the Sirens (2). Was this power simply a divine and magical gift with no other explanation, or can we explain more specifically the connections between music and behavior?

Sound is an important input affecting the nervous system. The brain reacts to sound input because information signals are able to travel from the outside environment, across action potentials and through the neural
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Specifically, music has been associated with healing abilities, and has been used for such purposes throughout history. Traditionally, the types of sound responsible for healing are characterized by distinct rhythms, and by specific emphasis on repetition that stems from those rhythms. The existence of repetitive beat seems to aid in the achievement of meditative state. Shamans are well known for their use of drum beats to access healing powers both within themselves and for the people they wish to treat (5).

It has been suggested that in the meditative state—a state of extreme awareness and internal mental calmness—the two hemispheres of the brain become synchronized in brain wave production, rather than generating signals of varying frequencies and amplitudes. It would thus make sense that the repetitive nature of chant, and the underlying beat of music, is central in the unifying and rhythmic effect that such practices have on the brain. Specifically, we find the underlying repetitive drone, a constantly held baseline tone, in numerous types of spiritual chant, including the Hebrew, Byzantine, Arabic, Tibetan and Gregorian traditions. The Om sound is also an important tone in traditional chanting practice which calls upon repetition and harmonics for its restorative effects.

A striking example relating rhythm, brain function, and health is found in a story which occurred forty years ago among a group of Benedictine monks in
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