Irving Berlin singing to troops aboard the USS Arkansas in 1944.
“Music is a therapy. It is a communication far more powerful than words, far more immediate, far more efficient.” -Yehudi Menuhin
Music therapy formally began as a profession during the first and second World Wars, in which communities of musicians would travel to hospitals to play to the suffering veterans. The doctors and nurses who were stationed at these various hospitals noticed the physical and psychological benefit of this treatment on their patients, and called for the hospital to hire full time musicians. However, training was necessary to successfully carry out this job, which led to the first college classes in music therapy.
With the rise in popularity and demand for music therapists, researchers began to wonder what were the underlying causes of the benefits of this therapy. Specifically, why is emotion so closely tied with music and what areas of the brain contribute to this link?
The primary auditory cortex is located in the temporal lobes of the brain, adjacent to the ears. This placement makes it essential in sound processing and obviously music processing. But the cortical connections and processing don’t end there. The auditory cortex projects to the primal part of our brain, the parts of the brain responsible for our emotions. This area of inner cortical structures is called the limbic system. Specifically, there is an aggregate of cells within the limbic system called the Nucleus Accumbens, which play a major part in the reward circuitry in the brain. This circuit creates pleasure from food, sex, and addiction. And, what’s more, the Nucleus Accumbens is activated when we listen to pleasurable music causing a release in dopamine, which causes us to feel pleasure.
Figure 1: The Right NAcc, at the top of the picture, is the nucleus accumbens and this chart is showing increased connectivity from various regions of the brain, but it specifically is connecting strongly to the auditory cortex. This illustrates the link between music interpretation and the reward circuitry in our brain. Taken from Valorie N. Salimpoor, interactions between the Nucleus Accumbens and the Auditory Cortices predict music reward value.
So to sum up all this neuroscience jargon; music is processed in the primary auditory cortex, which is explicitly linked with the reward pathway in the brain.
Dancing, as anyone who has ever met Kacey Kroeger knows, goes hand in hand with music. Therefore, I want to also mention the mechanisms underlying dance therapy and the benefits of this type of therapy.
Figure 2: A diagram of the proposed neural circuit that is affected through dance therapy. The action of mirroring is facilitated by the mirror neuron system (MNS), which has direct connections to the emotional center of the brain (the limbic system). This circuit increases empathy for others as well as within us. Taken from Lucy M. McGarry http://www.autismmovementtherapy.org/site/images/dmt_mns_2011.pdf
One of the most significant findings about dance therapy is the feeling of empathy that one feels while following the dance moves of another person. Not only do people following along better understand the emotions of the leader, but in understanding the leader’s emotions they come to feel those emotions themselves. This is due to an interaction between the mirror neuron system (neurons that allow us to copy behavior) and the limbic system (emotional regulation). In dance therapy we start by following along with the instructor, thereby activating our mirror neurons in the frontal cortex of the brain. This mirror neuron system then feeds into the primal limbic system, which controls our emotions. This process not only allows the followers to better relate to the leader, through increased empathy, but in doing so they feel those same positive emotions. This is why dance therapy and just dancing in general makes us feel so good! So keep on dancing!