Music to our ears... and our minds 

By Russ Cooper

We've all heard the debate between 'right brain' and 'left brain' people: Those who are left-brained are more analytical and logical, while right-brained folk are for artistic, more intuitive. Ergo, math is done on the left, music on the right. Right?

While not completely untrue, the conventional idea isn't as accurate as we've come to believe, says associate professor in Concordia's department of music Christine Beckett. "With music, the brain lights up like a christmas tree on both sides," she says.

Christine Beckett bridges the gap between music and the mind at the Vanier library. Magnifying glass

Christine Beckett bridges the gap between music and the mind at the Vanier library.

In her demonstration Hemispheric Harmonies on Oct. 28, Beckett explained to a packed house at the Vanier Library that the human brain isn't as clearly separated as we think, especially when it comes to music.

"Music, more than any other medium, calls on the whole brain," says Beckett.
Beckett's findings stem from her research with the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research (BRAMS), a collaboration of universities devoted to the study of music cognition with a focus on neuroscience.

So, how does a career musician become so captivated by a side of the art form that is, well, so cerebral?

"Teaching ear training one day, the question just popped into my head, 'what is actually going on in their heads?' That launched me onto MA and PhD research in music education," she explains. "I also had the extraordinary good luck to meet (BRAMS Co-Director) Robert Zatorre fairly early on in his career, and that was the start."

According to Beckett, music tends to have a special effect on brain activity. Using MRI images, she illustrated the activity of a musician's brain when improvising musical scales – the flurry of colourful activity on both sides helped to support Beckett's research and dispel the myth of LBS, or lop-sided brain syndrome.

Even when merely remembering a tune using mental imagery, strong activations in right hemisphere are accompanied by activations to the left.

Beckett explained that music is, in part, processed deep in the brain by parts shared by both hemispheres. Furthermore, she explained that musicians tend to have a larger corpus collosum than the average person – the part of the brain facilitating communication between the two halves, located directly between the left and right sides.

A good portion of Beckett's presentation also helped to explain how music is becoming an effective and vital component in the rehabilitation of stroke victims and other health treatments – something well known to Concordia's Creative Arts Therapy department, who are in the final stages of approving a graduate certificate in music therapy in Sept. 2009, and a master's degree starting in 2010.

"I'm not a music therapist, but I'd love to contribute what I know," she says. "I know they're getting highly experienced, internationally respected specialists. The program is going to be amazing."

With so much room for exploration and discovery, Beckett is excited about going deeper into research based around music and the brain.

"There's a lot we don't know," she says. "It's a field that's only been around for 20 or 30 years, and there are still many questions to answer yet."


Concordia University