Brain Health,
Sci + Society,

#159: Music: By the Brain and For the Brain

December 16, 2016

Music has been an integral part of human culture through the ages, providing a driving force behind many emotions and affecting our brains in various different ways. We have two scientists joining us in episode 159 – Dr. Robert Zatorre from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and Dr. Assal Habibi from the University of Southern California – who’re both studying the inner workings of how listening to music, playing an instrument and so forth have neurological and in many cases cognitive impact on the brain.

Dr. Zatorre and Dr. Habibi approach the study of music and it’s effect on the brain in slightly different ways and the dual perspectives result in in a very interesting, albeit a longer than usual episode. So brace yourself, grab a cup of coffee or your favorite beverage, sit back and enjoy.

Curious about the video Jesse mentioned? 
Here’s the link to this very cool idea about resetting the world’s common calendaring system back 10,000 years, delineating “The Human Era.”

Read Full Transcript
Show Notes
  • 00:00:37

    Music and the brain

  • 00:01:46

    This Week in Neuroscience:Longer ‘penis’ drives evolution of bigger brains in female fish

  • 00:05:43

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:09:30

    Introduction to Dr. Robert Zatorre and Dr. Assal Habibi

  • 00:11:00

    Why both doctors began studying music

  • 00:13:36

    Are there any music-less cultures?

  • 00:14:49

    Group music programs to develop cognition in children

  • 00:16:49

    What is happening when we get chills while listening to music?

  • 00:20:31

    Music and brain plasticity

  • 00:23:39

    The evolutionary advantage for humans to be drawn to music

  • 00:27:33

    What variables affect how a child will ‘connect’ with music?

  • 00:29:25

    What was the evolutionary pressure for people to appreciate music?

  • 00:32:33

    Changes in the abilities that rely on sound

  • 00:37:33

    Differences in the brains of musicians, music-lovers and the “music anhedonic”

  • 00:40:22

    Executive function in people exposed to music

  • 00:44:58

    Studies Dr. Zatorre would like to conduct next

  • 00:46:14

    Music training for deaf children

  • 00:47:19

    Anticipation, expertise and reward with music-listening

  • 00:49:18

    Other similar music studies

  • 00:52:51

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Why Some Songs Get Stuck in Our Head


  1. ben says:

    I thought the 2 interviews did seem a bit dis-jointed, but I liked the idea how music triggers anticipation/reward responses from the modern and ancestral parts of the brain.

    Along those lines, there was an interesting paper published recently about how a polymorphism in the dopamine receptor affects how you respond to music. Perhaps genetics is also responsible for why some respond to Binaural Beats better than others.

    BTW, regarding switching the human era age to the Holocene Calendar, it reminds me of the famous calendar that shrinks the entire known universe time into 1 year, and how modern humans occupy the last second on Dec. 31! Makes you also think that if a civilization happen to start a little earlier, how advanced they would be, leading of course to the idea that intelligent life has/is visiting the earth may be real!

    There’s also a nicely shot documentary called ‘Homo Sapiens’ about some of the structures humans have created (and then abandoned)!

  2. Stephanie D'Ambra says:

    I am a long time listener since the beginning and this was an exceptional show on music and the brain. I have been following the el sistema music program for awhile and am very appreciative to hear about Dr. Habibi’s research. Just a confirmation of what I have observed about music and musicians. My daughter is on the path of neuroscience and music and this show was chockful of great information to share with her and many others. 5 stars!!!
    Thanks Jesse and staff!

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