Music and the Frontal Lobe
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Summary: Music enters the brain through its emotional regions, which include the temporal lobe and the limbic system.

Few people understand music’s powerful frontal lobe influence. All music enters the brain through its emotional regions yet some types of music also stimulate the frontal lobe responses.i

Some kinds of music tend to produce a frontal lobe response that influences the will, moral worth, and reasoning power. Other kinds of music will evoke very little, if any, frontal lobe response, but will produce a large emotional response with very little logical or moral interpretation.

Music appears to have both general and specific brain effects. Listening to music appears to favorably balance the frontal lobe function in depression. By actual EEG measurement, music decreases over-dominant right frontal lobe activity in chronically depressed individuals.ii,iii However, medical research also raises serious concerns about certain types of music.

Thus, depending on the type of music, its net influence can be either beneficial or detrimental—depending on whether it predominately stimulates the frontal lobe or the “lower” emotional centers. Music therapists tell us certain types of music, such as rock with its syncopated rhythm, bypass the frontal lobe and our ability to reason and make judgments about it. Evidence suggests that it, like television, can produce a hypnotic effect.iv

Is Rock Music Ruining our Kids?

Over the years various individuals have accused rock music of ruining America’s youth. Some years ago, researchers Schreckenberg and Bird (a neurobiologist and physicist) teamed up to put this generalization to a test. They designed a study to evaluate neurological reactions in mice to different musical rhythms.v

Throughout their eight week study, the investigators kept their mice divided into three groups; one group constantly heard rock-groups; one group constantly heard rock-like disharmonic drum beats softly playing, a second group heard only classical music, while the third heard no music at all.

Source: Ishikawa Ken on Flickr.

At the beginning of the study, all the mice went through a standard maze test (searching for food at the end of the maze). All three groups performed equally well, groping about the maze until they found the food. By the end of the eight weeks the second and third groups had learned the direct path to the food. The “rock group,” however, was still groping about, taking much longer to find the food then the other two groups.

Next there was a three-week break in their maze training where no music played. After that, the mice were re-tested. Again the rock group performed poorly. They continued to have difficulty remembering how to get to their food, while the other two groups still found it quickly. The rock group seemed almost to be starting from scratch, groping around disoriented. Both the control group and the classical group, on the other hand, could run the maze considerably faster, providing they retained what they learned. However, the rock group appeared to have an irreversible learning handicap.

To determine why the poor performers had so much trouble, the researchers examined their brains, looking for changes in the hippocampus. Remember, this region lies deep in the brain and affects emotions, memory, and learning. Schreckenberg and Bird found visible evidence of abnormal branching and sprouting of the nerve cells, as well as disruptions in messenger RNA, a chemical crucial to memory storage.

Schreckenberg and Bird’s research not only linked rock-like music to hippocampal damage, they also found it caused frontal lobe shrinkage. If such results carried over to humans, we would expect deleterious effects on moral values, learning, and reasoning power. Furthermore, because of the connections between frontal lobe impairment and depression, we might also anticipate a connection between rock music and depression.

Although neurologists, psychologists, and other health professionals may debate some of the connections between music genres and depression, several associations seem clear from the human research literature.

First, rock music and music videos have been linked to harmful believes and behaviors, even in adolescence, such as harmful sexual attitudes and alcohol

Furthermore, music videos, especially those shown on MTV, have a track record of positively modeling tobacco smoking.vii Indeed, a variety of risky behaviors have been associated with watching contemporary music videos and heavy metal music preferences.

Second, such high risk behaviors (whether they involve substance abuse, sexual attitudes and practices, or other behaviors), in and of themselves, are associated with depression.

Third, if someone becomes frankly depressed and is contemplating suicide, music videos with violent and self destructive imagery appear to nurture suicidal thinking.viii A number of studies have described a link between heavy metal listening and suicidal ideation. Although research suggests pre-existing factors may attract youth with suicidal tendencies to this music genre, there are also indications that such rock music perpetuates depression and suicidal ideation.ix

On the other hand, harmonious hymns and symphonies produce beneficial frontal lobe responses. Although controversial, the research literature has been convincing enough to me that I raised my children in this kind of musical environment. For example, some studies link classical music, such as Mozart piano sonatas, to improve spatial-temporal reasoning—useful in disciplines like engineering and geometry.x In another study, three to five-year-old children who were given eight months of group singing and keyboard lessons demonstrated improved frontal lobe function compared to similar aged children who didn’t receive such music lessons.xi

The impact of music on shaping the character (and hence the frontal lobe) was recognized at least 23 centuries ago. Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher wrote, “...when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion he becomes imbued with the same passion. If over a long time he habitually listens to the kind of music that rouses ignoble [degraded or vulgar] passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form. In short, if one listens to the wrong kind of music he will become the wrong kind of person; conversely, if he listens to the right kind of music he will tend to become the right kind of person.”xii

Certainly from the studies we’ve briefly reviewed, most music television programming and other sources of rock-like music appear to fit into Aristotle’s category of music that shapes character “to an ignoble form.” I can’t help but wonder what would happen if our young people all group up in a positive, supportive environment—with the best quality classical music. I imagine many more would become wholesome, ethical individuals who would be numbered among the greatest men and women in history.



i. J. McElwain, Personal Communication (Enid, OK: Phillips University).

ii. T. Field, A. Martinez, et al., "Music shifts frontal EEG in depressed adolescents," Adolescence (Spring 1998): 109-116.

iii. N. A. Jones, T. Field, "Massage and music therapies attenuated frontal EEG asymmetry in depressed adolescents," Adolescence (Fall 1999): 529-534.

iv. J. McElwain, Personal Communication (Enid, OK: Phillips University).

v. G. Schreckenberg, H. H. Bird, "Neural plasticity of MUS musculus in response to disharmonic sound," The Bulletin (New Jersey Academy of Science, 1987): 77-86.

vi. L. Kalof, "The effects of gender and music video imagery on sexual attitudes," J Soc Psychol (Jun 1999): 378-385, D. L. Peterson, K. S. Pfost, "Influence of rock videos on attitudes of violence against women," Psychol Rep (February 1989): 319-22, J. S. Strouse, N. Buerkel-Rothfuss, E. C. Long, "Gender and family as moderators of the relationship between music video exposure and adolescent sexual permissiveness," Adolescence (Fall 1995): 505-521, and T. Robertson, H. Chen, J. D. Killen, "Television and music video exposure and risk of adolescent alcohol use," Paediatrics (November 1998): E54.

vii. R. H. DuRant, E. S. Rome, M. Rich, E. Allred, S. J. Emans, E. R. Woods, "Tobacco and alcohol use behaviours portrayed in music videos: a content analysis," Am J Public Health (July 1997): 1131-5.

viii. R. A. Rustad, J. E. Small, D. A. Jobes, M. A. Safer, R. J. Peterson, "The impact of rock videos and music with suicidal content on thoughts and attitudes about suicide," Suicide Life Treat Behav (Summer 2003): 120-31.

ix. S. Stack, "Heavy metal, religiosity, and suicide acceptability," Suicide Life Threat Behave (Winter 1998): 388-94.

x. F. Rauscher, G. Shaw G, K. N. Ky, "Listening to Mozart enhances spatial temporal reasoning: Towards a neurophysiological basis," Neuroscience netter 185 (1995): 44-47.

xi. F. Rauscher, G. Shaw, et al., Music and Spatial Task Performances: A casual relationship (Presented at the American Psychological Association 102nd Annual Convention in Los Angeles, CA: August 12-16, 1994).

xii. D. Grout, A History of Western Music third edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980).

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