Like it or Not, Classical Music is a Workout for the Brain

From a dissertation by Susann Eschrich:

The comparison of old to new pieces yielded thalamic and midbrain activity while the contrast of recognized vs. not recognized pieces showed activation in the right inferior frontal gyrus. Retrieval processes from long-term representations of music tend to engage inferior frontal regions. Like in other studies before, a mainly left-lateralized activation of the frontal and temporal gyrus as well as the cingulate cortex was found for the processing of very positive valence. Contrasting recognized positive versus recognized less positive stimuli confirmed the role of the posterior cingulate gyrus in emotion control as well as the role of frontal regions and the right temporal pole in the processing of (the valence) of complex stimuli. Taken together, more brain areas were active during the processing of the very positive stimuli. The results of the experiments provide evidence for a relation between valence elicited in the listener by music and the retrieval of this music from long-term memory. Music inducing very positive emotion is recognized better. The left inferior frontal gyrus seems to be involved in the retrieval of music from episodic memory and more (frontal and limbic) brain areas are active during the retrieval of very positive compared to less positive music.

Man in red suit with hands on head and frightened expression; in background are skeletal Beethoven in purple suit and woman with ghostly appearance, both surrounded by musical notes

Frightened Man and Musical Monsters
Pop Ink – CSA Images

What soon-to-be Dr. Susann Eschrich has shown in this study is that while the brain begins processing music in the limbic system, wider areas of the brain are needed once the processing begins. While Eschrich used film scores, these are comparable in structure, complexity, and emotional weight to Romantic symphonies and chamber music. Therefore, listening to the film scores, which, as were the Romantic symphonies, were designed to evoke the emotions, involves wide areas of the brain in processing both the music and the emotions.

Eschrich also cites Gosselin et al. Specifically, fear-inducing music (one need only think of Vincent Price and the ubiquitous Toccata and Fugue in d of Bach), involves the amygdala and the anterior cingulate gyrus, which are wired differently in the brains of autistic individuals. Therefore, exposure to this type of music should reinforce and construct neural connections between those two parts of the brain.

See the Neuroanatomy page for an explanation of what the various affected parts of the brain do.

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