Music produces reorganization of brain function, and such change can be detected by analysis of the electroencephalogram (EEG, "brain waves"). Russian investigators have provided some evidence of these processes in children. Writing in the journal Human Physiology (1996, volume 22, pages 76-81), T. N. Malyarenko and his co-authors played classical music one hour per day over six months to four year old children in a preschool setting.
A control group had no exposure to music but simply the normal classroom sounds. The classical music group had an increase in a part of the alpha rhythm frequency band and, greater similarities ("coherence") between different regions of the cerebral cortex, most pronounced in the frontal lobes. Greater coherence is thought by some workers to indicate better "cooperation" among brain regions but others view it as typical of increased relaxation.
A particularly noteworthy aspect of this report is that the EEG changes occurred in a passive listening situation, in which the children were not required to pay attention to the music. Whether the effects are specific to a particular type of music remains to be studied. Also needed are controls for mere exposure to novel sounds.
Furthermore, "brain damage music" therapies are in widespread use for a variety of behavioral and neurological problems. When positive effects are obtained on behavior, the brain mechanisms involved remain a mystery. Now comes evidence that a certain type of music therapy has behavioral benefits via measurable changes in brain function. Dr. Pascal Belin and his associates, working at the Service Hospitalier Frederic Joliot in Orsay and other institutions in France report that Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT) promotes recovery from aphasia, a severe language disorder subsequent to stroke. MIT involves speaking in a type of musical manner, characterized by strong melodic (two notes, high and low) and temporal (two durations, long and short) components.
Reporting in the December 1996 issue of Neurology (vol. 47, pgs. 1504-1511), Belin et al studied seven patients who had a lengthy absence of spontaneous recovery. They also evaluated the effects of MIT on the brain by measuring relative cerebral blood flow (CBF) and PET scanning during hearing and repetition of simple words and of "MIT-loaded" words. MIT produced recovery of speech capabilities. Of great interest, a critical regions of the brain was activated by "MIT-loaded" words but not regular words. This is Broca's Area in the left hemisphere, known for over 100 years to be critically implicated in language and speech.
The authors believe that the reactivation by MIT of Broca's Area was critical to recovery of speech. These findings provide enormous promise for both the treatment of aphasia and understanding the role of music in normal and abnormal brain function.