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Music is pow­erful 

This is your brain on music.

When you listen to music and, even more so, when you sing or play music, your brain lights up. And it’s not just one locale along the neuro-super highway. The entire map erupts like fire­works. It’s not unlike a satellite time-lapse view of the eastern half of our country at night – bursts, and clusters, and veins of light con­necting city to city. What’s espe­cially inter­esting is that playing or singing music turns those fire­works into a gala event. It turns a backyard display into the Macy’s Fourth of July in New York City with seven barges in the East River launching pin­wheels and pulsing hearts and swirling foun­tains. We know the brain does this from various imagery scans we can now do, like MRI and PET scans — some­thing that wasn’t really looked at even twenty years ago.

Neu­rol­o­gists used to think that music hap­pened in one side of the brain. Music in one side, lan­guage in the other. They now know that music, espe­cially playing and singing, touches at once every part of the brain that has been mapped thus far. In fact, music has even been found to increase the capacity of the corpus cal­losum, the bridge between the brain’s two hemi­spheres. Neu­rol­o­gists also know that the neurons in your brain actually fire along with the tempo of music to which you are lis­tening. Ath­letes, for example, whether or not they are aware of the science behind it have figured out that lis­tening to music with just the right tempo can improve the physical actions needed for whatever sport they are par­tic­i­pating in. Find a song with a beat a little faster than your normal running pace and it will be easier to increase your speed to match the song’s pulse. In other words, lis­tening to and playing/singing music, engaging vast areas of the brain, gives it the equiv­alent of a total body workout.

I don’t have the space here to go into the pos­sible health ben­efits of music, but if you get a free moment, google music and dopamine; or music and metab­olism; or music and NK (natural killer) cells, along with music and T cells (pretty cool stuff); or music and mental health; or heck, just google music therapy and you’ll even­tually come across all of this. By the way, music therapy is a blos­soming field of study and if any of the college stu­dents reading this have an interest in it, there are more and more under­graduate and graduate pro­grams getting started all across the country. Cer­tainly, any pre-med stu­dents thinking about neu­rology who either play an instrument or simply have a love of music should con­sider the study of how music affects the brain.

I knew I wanted to be a pro­fes­sional pianist when I was a kid. And while I had no idea of the spec­tacular physical reaction to the brain on music, I was cer­tainly aware of the emo­tional reaction. I can still remember being nine and watching Arthur Rubin­stein per­forming the Grieg Piano Con­certo with The London Sym­phony Orchestra and getting chills and thinking, I want to do that! Or being ten and crying tears of hap­piness lis­tening to The Cleveland Orchestra per­forming a concert at Blossom Music Center. My first goal was to be a per­former and I reached that goal through won­derful teachers, top music schools and summer pro­grams, and practice, and practice, and more practice. At some point I under­stood that teaching would com­plete the circuit of music’s impor­tance to me and I applied to and won the job here at Hillsdale College. It was that, a love for teaching, and I wanted to settle down with a steady music gig and have a family. It’s the perfect job for me because I can earn a living both per­forming and teaching. Fourteen years later, I still con­sider myself a student, I’m still learning every day, and I still get the same emo­tional reac­tions to music. And I hope that I can bring the love and passion I have for music to all of my stu­dents.

You might be thinking, “What do I have to do to get this con­nection to music?” The best part of all of this is that you don’t have to be a music major or a concert artist to reap music’s ben­efits. Not to go all Yoda on you, but the power of music lies within all of us. You know what music you like and you know when to listen to or play dif­ferent types of music, based on your moods or desires. And if you want to learn an instrument or sing, then go do it. You’re not too old. Rhythm and melody are innate to human nature and have been a part of us going all the way back to our first appearance on this planet, regardless of how you believe that occurred. American com­poser Charles Ives once wrote, “Maybe music was not intended to satisfy the curious def­i­niteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may always be tran­scen­dental lan­guage in the most extrav­agant sense.” I like that a lot, though I’d change “man” to “humanity.” It makes me very happy to think of music having this kind of power. But maybe even more to the point, it was the vir­tuoso cellist Pablo Casals who once said, “Perhaps it is music that will save the world.” Wouldn’t that be some­thing?

The editors invite faculty members to con­tribute to Office Hours, a weekly column ded­i­cated to pro­moting rela­tion­ships between staff and stu­dents through the giving of advice and stories. Send sub­mis­sions to the Opinions Editor at kmcghee@hillsdale.edu.