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'The Power Of Music' To Affect The Brain

Jun 1, 2011 (Talk of the Nation)

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Listening to music can make you feel more relaxed, but in some cultures, it's actually used to ease pain.

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Science all but confirms that humans are hard-wired to respond to music. Studies also suggest that someday music may even help patients heal from Parkinson's disease or a stroke.

In The Power of Music, Elena Mannes explores how music affects different groups of people and how it could play a role in health care.

Mannes tracked the human relationship with music over the course of a life span. She tells NPR's Neal Conan that studies show that infants prefer "consonant intervals, the smooth-sounding ones that sound nice to our Western ears in a chord, as opposed to a jarring combination of notes."

In fact, Mannes says the cries of babies just a few weeks old were found to contain some of the basic intervals common to Western music.

She also says scientists have found that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. That's why she sees so much potential in music's power to change the brain and affect the way it works.

Mannes says music also has the potential to help people with neurological deficits. "A stroke patient who has lost verbal function — those verbal functions may be stimulated by music," she says.

One technique, known as melodic intonation therapy, uses music to coax portions of the brain into taking over for those that are damaged. In some cases, it can help patients regain their ability to speak.

And because of how we associate music with memories, Mannes says such techniques could also be helpful for Alzheimer's patients.

Less recently, archaeologists have discovered ancient flutes — one of which is presumed to be the oldest musical instrument in the world — that play a scale similar to the modern Western scale.

"And remarkably," Mannes says, "this flute, when played, produces these amazingly pure tones."

It's a significant discovery because it adds to the argument that musical ability and interest were present early in human history.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

The Power Of Music: Pioneering Discoveries In The New Science Of Song
By Elena Mannes
Hardcover, 288 pages
Walker & Co.
List Price: $26

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