“Rhythm, Music, & the Brain”

“Rhythm, Music, & the Brain”

Book Review: Rhythm, Music, and the Brain: Scientific Foundations and Clinical Applications, by Michael H. Thaut


There is a scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the movie), in which the main trio (Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley) are searching and searching for a book that will tell them more about the famous Nicholas Flamel and his connection to the fabled Sorcerer’s Stone. In this scene, Hermione, who has found the book, marches into the library, slams a book the size of a cinder block on a table, and exclaims that she had checked the book out for a bit of light reading. To which Ron Weasley sardonically responds, “This is light?”


I have to be honest: this is a bit how I felt while reading Michael H. Thaut’s Rhythm, Music, and the Brain. When I found out I had to read a variety of literature relating to my field during my internship, I jumped on the opportunity to expand my knowledge of music and neuroscience and went straight for this book. Now, I’m not sure if I was expecting more of an easy, general-reader-accessible exploration of music and neurology, but that is not what I got. This book is unapologetically scientific, reads like a textbook, and even has a chapter about calculus! By the time I had finished it, my brain was rattling around in my skull. But I learned so much, and I’m excited to share some of my take-aways with you! It should be noted that the field of Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT), which is the primary subject of this book, is incredibly complex, and I can only attempt to begin to scratch the surface of its multiple components in the next couple of pages.


Thaut begins Rhythm, Music, and the Brain discussing the history of music and its close association to all human cultures, as a means of expression, as an aesthetic modality, and as a fundamental component within culture itself. Thaut points out that the arts as a whole, and music in particular, have been known to exist at least since the Bronze Age, if not longer, indicating that music may have a more biologically essential role in the brain than most would assume. To quote him directly, “We may suggest that the brain engages in the arts because the arts, including music, create a particular type of sensory input, a specific perceptual language that is necessary for the appropriate regulation of arousal and activations states” (p. 25). My interpretation of this quote is that, contrary to a common assumption that music is a pleasant pastime created by humans for purposes of entertainment, it is actually a biologically necessary component of brain function that both emerges from the brain and acts upon the brain to stimulate important neural development.


Beyond the historical and biological implications of music and its relationship to the brain, Thaut spends a good bit of the first few chapters focusing specifically on rhythm (which you might have guessed from the title of the book). He points out that rhythm is in essence a time-keeper, a sort of acoustical cuing that allows us to break down pieces of sound and perceive them as both separate and whole. In other words, rhythm provides structure to the sounds we hear in music and helps our brain organize what it’s hearing into specific, comprehensible components.


Okay, Claire, you may say. That’s all super interesting about rhythm and all, but how does that apply to Music Therapy?


I’m so glad you asked!


Based on a lot of studies and a lot of research (and I mean a lot; the reference list for this book is almost 70 pages long), Thaut and his colleagues have found evidence that strongly suggests that the brain regulates its motor responses to musical, and specifically rhythmic, stimulus. In every-day life, this can manifest itself as the impulse to tap your foot to a song with a good beat. The rhythm provides a series of cues for the brain, and the brain adapts to anticipate these cues. In essence, rhythm regulates the body’s motions to correspond with this rhythmic stimulus. So essentially, every time you hear rhythm, your brain subconsciously primes your body to move in response to the rhythmic stimulus! Wow! Neuroscience!


In the next several chapters, Thaut dives into the existing research regarding music therapy as a means of rehabilitation in three main domains: Sensorimotor Rehabilitation, Speech and Language Rehabilitation, and Cognitive Rehabilitation. Now, a comprehensive analysis of the existing research on these areas is unquestionably beyond the scope of this review, so I’m going to oversimplify drastically. But the overarching concept you should take away is that music can affect your brain in such a way that it can promote actual physical neurologic change. As I talked about earlier, music and rhythm can actually activate motor responses in your brain, and provide auditory and sensorimotor cuing that can help maximize the efficiency of individual motions (hence the sensorimotor rehabilitation). In addition to sensorimotor regulation, music can be used therapeutically to address speech and language goals. The part of your brain that activates when you sing and engage in other forms of music making corresponds with the speech centers of your brain, but it also incorporates other areas that are not activated by speech. This means that if Music Therapy can be used to elicit verbal responses in patients with impairment in speech areas of the brain, and thus facilitate improved speech production. Music can also be used in cognitive rehabilitation, from facilitating memory access to improving attention and executive function.


Thaut spends chapters 6-9 detailing the theory behind Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) in particular and its applications in neuroscience. He specifically delves into the multiple research-based NMT techniques, which I will not get into here. Suffice it to say, there twenty-two specific, evidence-based and operationally defined techniques in which music can be applied to rehabilitate different areas of the brain, including techniques to improve motor function, rehabilitate speech and communication, improve sensory integration, and improve various areas of cognition.


All in all, Rhythm, Music, and the Brain did a really good job of combining the philosophy, research, and methodology of NMT into one concise, structured literary publication. Is it incredibly dense and somewhat difficult to read? Yes. But the field of Music Therapy, and the applications of Neurologic Music Therapy in particular, are incredibly complex, with incredibly complex scientific nuances and applications. Perhaps in the future, it would be wonderful to have a piece of literature that somewhat simplifies the concepts of Neurologic Music Therapy for the general reader, because this is important information that needs to be made more accessible. But, as a scientific publication, it would detract from the significance and importance of Music Therapy as a field for Rhythm, Music, and the Brain to pretend that NMT is anything less complex and scientific than it is.


Citation: Thaut, M. H. (2005). Rhythm, Music, and the Brain: Scientific Foundations and Clinical Applications. New York, NY. Routledge.

Claire Morison

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