Sometimes, watching a musician perform live can make us mere listeners feel like they have superpowers. Now, new research suggests brief musical training increases blood flow in the left hemisphere of the brain, but there are other benefits for listeners, too.
Researchers from the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool in the UK conducted two different studies to investigate how musical training affects the flow of blood to the brain.
They say their findings, which they presented at the British Psychological Society annual conference in Birmingham, UK, suggest the areas in charge of music and language share common pathways in the brain.
In early 2014, Medical News Today reported on a study that revealed brain scans of jazz musicians showed similarities between language and music. Researchers from that study said the brain likely uses its syntactic regions to process all communication - whether spoken or through music.
In the first of two studies, student Amy Spray and her mentor, Dr. G. Meyer, looked for brain activity patterns in 14 musicians and nine non-musicians while they engaged in music and word generation assignments.
The team found that brain patterns for the musicians were similar in both tasks, whereas, for the non-musicians, this was not the case.
Musical training causes a change in the cognitive mechanisms used for music perception, and these are usually used in processing language, researchers say.
In the second study, the investigators measured brain activity patterns in a different group of non-musicians who took part in word generation and music perception tasks. After initial measurements were taken, the team then took measurements once the participants had received 30 minutes of musical training.
The musical training, say the researchers, consisted of learning to tap three polyrhythms - two or more rhythms not constructed from the same meter that are played at the same time - with their fingers.
In the measurements taken before the training, the team observed that there were no significant brain activity patterns of correlation. However, after the musical training, they did find "significant similarities."
"It was fascinating to see that the similarities in blood flow signatures could be brought about after just half an hour of simple musical training," says Spray.
"This suggests that the correlated brain patterns were the result of using areas thought to be involved in language processing. Therefore we can assume that musical training results in a rapid change in the cognitive mechanisms utilized for music perception and these shared mechanisms are usually employed for language."
Music to cure what ails you
But music can do so much more, notes Michael Huckabee, professor and director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center Division of Physician Assistant Education.
In an article about the benefits of music on human health, he writes:
"Music does something beyond our understanding. We can call it an endorphin release or a distraction, but it goes much deeper than that. Somehow music just does us good. And the good it does was just proven to be better."
He speaks of a finding from researchers in Taiwan, who recently reviewed over 360 published studies on music therapy and concluded the data from these studies suggest cancer patients who routinely listen to music exhibit significantly fewer symptoms of depression, pain, fatigue and anxiety.
Prof. Huckabee also points to a patient with dementia named Henry, who has lived in a nursing home for 10 years and who experiences seizures and depression.
Though he barely recognizes his own daughter and rarely answers questions asked of him, during and shortly after he listens to music, he "comes to life, eyes wide open, talking of how much music means to him," says Prof. Huckabee.
The video below shows the miraculous transformation Henry goes through after being affected by his favorite music:
Prof. Huckabee notes that, although "more research needs to be done, it's a tactic worth trying."
In 2013, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested music training in childhood boosts the brain in adulthood.