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Music and Brain

Just as innovative brains have contributed to the evolution of music, music too has had a huge influence on the evolution of the brain. Though there is sufficient evidence tracing the origins of music back to pre-historic times, the details remain hazy. However, there is no doubt that music did exist in the distant past, a fact borne out by the discovery of the flute made of dry bones. As civilizations evolved the bones made way to wood. The modern era has been marked by brilliant compositions.

In my opinion, sound and music evolved together and just like words and languages turned into magical prose and poetry, the sound of music translated into various types: classical, semi classical, light, vocal and instrumental. The early masters scripted its rules and structures, or the grammar of music, to help its dissemination, leading to the evolution of different scales, ragas, curricula and schools of music. It’s not clear whether music originated in one place and then permeated across races and continents or it was born at several places around the same period of time. What is clear, however, is that it invaded every culture and went beyond barriers.

Music, particularly rhythm, has tremendous influence on the brain. It is well known to generate rhythmic electrical activity which is helpful and the cause of several positive effects on the brain. Not only does it influence musicians, but also small children and animals. It appears that it can impact every nervous system. This has led to the famous statement “Sishur Vethi, Pasur Vethi, Vethi Gana Rasam Phanihi,” meaning infants, animals and even snakes enjoy music without any discrimination. This fact was well known to our ancestors and hence everyone was given an opportunity to learn. Many countries like Japan made it a compulsory part of their curriculum for young children. The brains of those who have learned and practiced music from childhood demonstrate clear patterns of enrichment, which leads to enhanced performance. They also tend to have superior learning abilities and attention spans. They are generally more stable, calm and exhibit enormous tolerance and equanimity.

The left brain is dominant in most people and because it contains the speech centre they are right handed. Surprisingly, the speech centres of a great number of left handers too reside in the left brain. In general handed-ness decides the dominant brain. Both sides of the brain are equally dominant in the case of musicians, particularly instrumentalists. They are focused, creative and consequently ambidextrous.

Music, particularly the regular practice of instruments seems to help them develop both sides of the brains. Of late several structural features unique to musicians have been observed by researchers: The sensory part of their brain is well developed and the communication fibres between the brains called commisures and the anterior part of carpus callosum is very thick suggesting a larger number of connecting cables. Incidentally the carpus callosum is akin to a large bridge that enables the rapid transfer of information between different areas of the brain on either side.

There could be an increase in synaptic connectivity within (brain networks) that makes these people sharper. Tahir sensory systems and acoustic systems become sharper with greater accuracy of tonotopic systems within making them adept at sensing sound variations (Shruthi). Normally, the left brain deals with language, syntax and the diction part of lyrics while the right adds feel and emotion. The melodies they produce together is not just supremely appealing to the senses, they also trigger a variety of physical and emotional affects. Rhythm and percussion instruments seem to have the ability to generate symmetrical rhythmic movements of the body even among children by stimulating corresponding neurons in the brain.

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