Music has powerful (and visible) effects on the brain (especially when listening to a favorite song)

By Wayne Mogielnicki, Wake Forest Baptist Healthwire

It doesn’t matter if it’s Beethoven or the Beatles. Your favorite music likely triggers a similar type of activity in your brain as other people’s favorites do in theirs. That’s one of the things Dr. Jonathan Burdette has found in researching music’s effects on the brain.

“Music affects all of us, but in very personal, unique ways,” said Burdette, a neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “Your brain has a reaction when you like or don’t like something, including music. We’ve been able to take some baby steps into seeing that.”

To see how music preferences might affect functional brain connectivity – the interactions among separate areas of the brain – Burdette and his fellow investigators used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which depicts brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. Scans were made of 21 people while they listened to music they said they most liked and disliked from among five genres (classical, country, rap, rock and Chinese opera) and to a song or piece of music they named as their personal favorite.

Those fMRI scans showed a consistent pattern: The listeners’ preferences, not the type of music they were listening to, had the greatest impact on brain connectivity, especially on a brain circuit known to be involved in internally focused thought. This circuit was poorly connected when the participants were listening to the music they disliked, better connected when listening to the music they liked and the most connected when listening to their favorites. The scans also showed that listening to favorite songs altered the connectivity between auditory brain areas and a region responsible for memory and social emotion consolidation.

“There are probably some features in music that make you feel a certain way, but it’s your experience with it that is even more important,” said Burdette, who is also professor of radiology and vice chairman of research at Wake Forest School of Medicine. “Your associations with certain music involve many different parts of the brain, and they’re very strong.”

Music is just a small part of Burdette’s research but it has long been a big of part his life.

Burdette grew up playing viola, piano and guitar. He has been singing since childhood and continues to do so, including in the chorus in productions staged by the Piedmont Opera, of which he has been a board member for more than ten years. His wife, Shona Simpson, plays piano. Their three teenage daughters – Fiona, Ellie and Jessie – perform professionally as the Dan River Girls. His brother Kevin is a singer who has appeared as a soloist with the Metropolitan Opera and other top-tier companies and orchestras.

Burdette additionally has deep interest, if not direct involvement, in music’s clinical applications.

“Music isn’t going to cure anything, but it definitely can play a therapeutic role,” he said. In countries such as Germany, Burdette noted, music therapy is commonly an integral part of the rehabilitation process for people who have had strokes, brain surgery or traumatic brain injuries.

Burdette also is a proponent of programs that help people with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive problems re-connect with the world through music. One such program is Music & Memory, which employs iPods with customized playlists featuring songs popular when the participating individual was under 30 years old.

“You can actually see the power of music,” Burdette said.People who were just sitting there, not engaged in anything, light up when they start hearing music from when they were 25. “It’s fantastic. What else can do that? I can’t think of anything other than music.”


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