What A Stanford Research Team Discovered about How Music Supports Brain Function May Surprise You...

You don't have to be an accomplished musician or even a knowledgeable fan of any particular type of music to reap the rewards of casual listening. Moving a step closer to answering important questions about how people are able to follow a single conversation in a noisy environments like parties and restaurants, a team at Stanford University School of Medicine used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to gain insight about how the human brain sorts information in the only study of its kind.

Their goal was to better understand how the brain segments information and how music affects the brain's ability to handle large volumes of information. Their findings support the theory that listening to music stimulates and exercises the parts of the brain that help to efficiently organize information.

With peak brain activity occurring in the transitions between movements, scientists learned that the highest level of attention happens in the quiet parts of music. As the brain tries to anticipate what will happen next, it exercises its ability to predict future events by using information taken from the past.

Participants in the study showed similar patterns of activity during the fMRI session and were listening to the same piece of music. Each participant was exposed to the same music, two 8–10 min long segments of symphonies by the English baroque composer William Boyce (1711–1779), and even without formal music training, they all responded similarly, with right side brain activity spiking during transitions in the music. 

Listening to music trains the human brain to sustain attention and anticipate events, making it useful for more than casual entertainment. In a world that is in a permanent fast-forward mode, playing music helps people cope with a fast-paced day or long hours at work without losing attention or sacrificing comprehension.

What does this mean for music in our public education spaces? How will this research from Stanford translate from high level science to common knowledge? Will it have an effect on how doctors treat traumatic brain injury in the future?

While we can't answer all of the tough questions yet, we are sure of one thing:  Music is making us smarter. The implications of this knowledge on how we think about and discuss the adaptive evolution of humans all over the world certainly creates a friendlier space for music in general. It's not just about entertainment and relaxation anymore. So next time you see a street performer playing their heart out, stop and listen.

Let your brain reap the rewards!

For more information on the study referenced in this article, click here