Our Brain Awareness Q&A Session on Music and the Brain with Kimberly Sena MooreYesterday, we hosted an excellent Q&A session on Facebook about music and the brain. Music therapist Kimberly Sena Moore answered people’s questions and I think we all learned a lot! For those who missed the discussion and prefer to read it in transcript form, I’ve re-posted it here. You can find Kimberly’s blog about music therapy here. You might also be interested in an article she wrote for this blog, Top 12 Brain-Based Reasons Why Music as Therapy Works.

Question: Kimberly, my son is currently one. What kind and how much music should he listen to daily? Also, my mother used to constantly play music in the background when I was younger and was wondering what effect that had on my brain.

Kimberly’s Answer: Good question–and one I’ve thought about, too, with my own kids 🙂 You ask both about the kind of music and how much music. I’ll answer each in turn. For the kind of music, the short answer is to shoot for variety. Have songs that you sing to him, play CDs of classical music, listen to various “toddler tunes” artists, participate in a “mommy and me” type of music group. The BEST kind of music to listen to is one that’s interactive–that involves live singing/playing between your son and someone else. And don’t worry if you feel you “can’t sing”–your child loves you unconditionally and your voice will be the sweetest one he knows.

As for how much music, I don’t know that there’s such a thing as “too much.” A child’s brain will “tune out” when it’s ready to learn from another stimulus. If you ever attend a “mommy and me” type of music group, you’ll notice that the activity changes every couple of minutes–that’s because children can get bored until there is a new stimulus presented. If you have music going in the background, a child will intermittently pay attention and his/her brain “needs” to.

With that in mind, having background music on ALL the time isn’t better than having it on intermittently. But it certainly doesn’t hurt 🙂

Question: Kimberly, what role do you think that music played (or plays) in the development and evolution of the brain?

Kimberly’s Answer: Lovely question! And another two-parter… first, let’s talk about evolution. Although we don’t know for sure, we can speculate, based on our understanding of neuroscience and on archeological evidence, that music and the arts have played a pivotal role in the development of humans. For example, it’s likely that music was used as a form of communication, whether it was drums used to literally share information from one area to another or laments used to grief the dead. Additionally, music may have facilitated social bonding–which is important for a community’s survival. Recent research suggests that music increases oxytocin and dopamine (our brain’s “feel good” chemicals) and decreases testosterone (which helps lessen aggression). Finally, some researchers believe that music and the arts may have predated formal language.

Now for the development part–early on, kids show that they learn through creative play…including music. This natural instinct shows that a child’s brain is primed to use music, art, and dance to develop. Additionally, recent research shows a correlation between music training and both math and verbal skills. In other words, people with a certain about of musical training perform better on math and language tests. “Just” music listening won’t do it, but a person should have some musical training.

Question: What exactly is music therapy? And what conditions does it help? For example, can it help with anxiety disorders?

Kimberly’s Answer: Love this question! Music therapy is the professional healthcare discipline that uses music-based interventions to improve non-musical treatment goals. These goals are generally in the areas of cognition, speech/language, sensorimotor, psychosocial, and emotional. Music therapists have at least a bachelor’s-level college training, having completed a six month clinical internship, and have passed a national board-certification exam (hence, MT-BC for “Music Therapist-Board Certified”). Because of the therapeutic tool we use (music), music therapists can help a wide variety conditions: Autism and other special needs, Medical (including oncology, NICU), Neurorehab (e.g. stroke, Parkinsons, TBI), Mental Health (including, yes, anxiety disorders), Aging (dementia, hospice). We can work “cradle-to-grave”.

To answer your question about anxiety disorders more specifically, yes music therapy may be able to help. A music therapists will conduct a music therapy assessment to determine if MT is a fit for that person. For more information, I invite you to visit the American Music Therapy Association at www.musictherapy.org To find a music therapist, please visit the Certification Board for Music Therapists at www.cbmt.org

Question: Is there any research about music and the aging brain? I am 81.

Kimberly’s Answer: We are learning more and more! Here’s what we know–research has shown that one of the best things you can do to keep your brain young is to develop your working memory. And one of the best ways to do that is to learn a new skill. Music is a beautiful fit because it is multi-modal–you challenge auditory, motor, memory, cognitive, and visual skills. It’s never “too late” to learn music! And it may be one of the best things you can do (in addition to diet, exercise, sleep, etc.) for an aging brain.

Question: I am a 50 year old female. Professional singer (currently in Dallas Opera chorus rehearsing Boris Godunov) I’m trying neurofeedback to help with cognitive changes since a May 2007 LOC head injury in a car wreck. What kinds of tones (or keys/ tempi) would be good to help with some depression and sleep trouble I still have?

Kimberly’s Answer: Music therapy may be able to help you…but it will probably need to take a formal music therapy assessment from a board-certified music therapist to determine the best MT treatment for you. Although I don’t think any particular tones or tempi would help, I can envision the MT creating a music and relaxation type of exercise you go through every night to help address your sleep trouble. In this case, the music used would be individualized to work for you. This is why it’s not possible to recommend a certain tone/tempi. Music is not “one size fits all”! 🙂

I’d recommend you visit the Certification Board for Music Therapists (www.cbmt.org) and click the “Search for a Music Therapist” link. Good luck!

Follow-up Question: Kimberly, I’m an SMT who follows your blog (in my first year of a masters/equivalency program). My first thoughts upon reading this question were music psychotherapy (supportive group music therapy and interactive group music therapy) and Associative Mood and Memory Training (AMMT). I am not familiar with any specific keys or tempi for affect modification. But I’d love to know it if they exist!!

Kimberly’s Answer: I agree with you on both those accounts–music psychotherapy may be a treatment option for the depression and AMMT may be an intervention that works for the sleep issues. However, it’s not possible (nor ethical!) to determine that without the formal MT assessment…something for the MT-BC she finds to determine 🙂 To touch on the “specific keys/tempi for affect modification” part, I don’t think that’s possible. Certainly different harmonies/timbres/tempi/modes can have an impact on how we feel, but the impact is very individualized.

Follow-up Response: Great point, Kimberly. It is soooo important for a REAL assessment to take place. My VERY limited knowledge of Helen and her needs lead me to ASSUME those would be appropriate treatment options. But, in practicing evidence-based music therapy, and in order to really ensure proper treatment it is so important to address the needs of the individual. Thanks for pointing that out. 🙂

Question: I’m pregnant and want to know if playing music will affect the development of my baby’s brain while in utero.

Kimberly’s Answer: Congratulations on your pregnancy! The short answer is “yes!” playing music for your baby will affect his/her developing brain. A fetus begins to “hear” and process sounds about halfway through your pregnancy. The sounds that are the clearest are those of the mother’s voice, but the child can hear all the sounds and noises the mother can, it just comes through more muffled. And given what we know about neurodevelopment (namely that experiences do shape how a child’s brain develops), any sounds and music your child hears in utero does impact his/her brain. That said…let’s clear up some misconceptions…

First, it is completely unnecessary to put headphones on your pregnant belly. Remember, your child hears anything you hear, so simply having music on in the room makes a difference. Second, although listening to music in utero will have an effect on his/her developing brain, it will NOT turn him/her into a genius 🙂 Finally, I recently heard a recommendation from Dr. Jayne Stanley (MT professor at Florida State University) that you may be interested in. When you are relaxing and getting ready for bed at night, have your child listen to the same song. This can either be a soft, soothing recording you listen to or a lullaby-type song you sing. If you do this every night (and use the same song), the baby may begin to associate that song with relaxing bedtime. Then, after your baby is born, play that song at night and see if it helps him/her fall asleep 🙂

Follow-up Response: Kimberly, I played a certain lullaby “May All Your Dreams Come True” for my son (now 8 yrs.) each night before he was born and as an infant. It was indeed helpful with his bedtime routine. And another fun aspect of that was one of the first birthday cards he wrote for me by himself, he wrote “May All Your Dreams Come True”

Kimberly’s Response: That’s great, Antoinette! Thank you for sharing 🙂

Follow-up Response: I read in the book The Brain That Changes Itself that there have been studies that link excessive noise in utero has been linked to increased chances of autism. And they have theories on why that made pretty good sense to me. (at the time, its been a while since I read it.) I’m not sure if it was just a certain kind of noise or not though. The studies involved pregnant mothers who lived right next to highways, train tracks, etc.

Question: My son has a traumatic brain injury. Could music therapy help him? Where should I start?

Kimberly’s Answer: Music therapy can be a VERY effective treatment tool for someone with a TBI. Music therapy has been shown to help those with a TBI with their speech/language goals, fine and gross motor skills, cognitive goals, as well as their social and emotional goals. A formal music therapy assessment is needed to determine whether MT is indeed a good fit. I would recommend starting by finding a music therapist! Please visit www.cbmt.org and click on the “Search for a Music Therapist” tab. Good luck 🙂

Follow-up Response: My daughter also has a brain injury. Any way I can improve executive functioning skills with MT.

Kimberly’s Answer: Yes! Music therapy can definitely be used to improve executive functioning skills. One intervention example is composing music–this involves needing to set goals, plan the song, and make decisions about what notes and chords come next. All are executive functioning skills.

Follow-up Response: I should think so. Suggest getting in touch with Dr. Oliver Sacks or reading his book on the brain and music. Also, Charlie Rose did great series on the brain. “The Music Never Stopped” is an indie feature film based on the essay “The Last Hippie” from AN ANTHROPOLOGIST ON MARS (by Oliver Sacks.)

Question: What every day benefits does music produce in our day to day lives? Especially playing music (instrument – guitar).

Kimberly’s Answer: Playing music may certainly help you feel better! You can (and probably do!) play music to help you enhance or express a feeling (e.g. playing a “sad, depressing” song when you’re feeling down). That type of outward expression can be very beneficial. Depending on the type of instrument you’re playing, music may offer exercise-types of benefits. Play a wind instrument and you work on your respirations; play guitar and you get your fingers moving. There may also be social benefits, say if you’re playing with a group. Finally, there are cognitive benefits. If you’re composing or improvising music, you’re working on your executive functioning skills and creativity. If you’re learning a new song, you’re challenging your motor and learning/memory systems. In short, playing music can benefit you socially, emotionally, physically, cognitively, and creatively.

Question: Are there studies citing any benefits of music therapy in the treatment of PTSD?

Kimberly’s Answer: We are starting to learn more and more. In fact, music therapy in the US owes it’s formal start to working with this population. In the 1940s, the first music therapists came to be because they were working with WWII vets and found that music helped improve their “shell shock” symptoms (what’s now known at PTSD). I can’t cite any studies off the top of my head, but it’s a growing area and there are two books that may help: 1) Music, Music Therapy, and Trauma (http://www.jkp.com/catalogue/book/9781843100270) and Caring for the Caregiver: The Use of Music and Music Therapy in Grief and Trauma (at the bottom of the page here: http://www.musictherapy.org/products/products.html#From_the_Library)

Question: During surgery to coil an aneurysm, it ruptured, giving me a stroke on left side. Before I had played bass guitar in a classic rock band and I haven’t been able to play. Breaks my heart. Will I ever be able to play again? Which would be better, keep trying on my right handed bass or try to learn to play a left handed bass?

Kimberly’s Answer: The short answer is, yes! It is possible for you to play again. Based on your description, it sounds like you may need to adapt how you play. Going with a “right-handed” style is one solution, but there are others. You can experiment with open string tuning (in other words, having all the strings tuned to a chord, which may help your left hand). You can also try to simplify what your left hand is trying to do by, for example, starting with one note at a time. Given that I don’t know the specifics of your needs, I would recommend talking with either a music therapist who offers adaptive music lessons or to a music teacher who is willing to work with your individual needs. Another option is to seek out an occupational therapist (OT) who knows how to play the bass. S/He may not be able to offer you music lessons, but may be able to help you with the adaptations.

As an aside, any work you do “re-learning” how to play the bass could potentially help you in other areas, including your fine motor skills and cognitive skills. Best of luck to you!