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How Does Music Influence Brain? Interview with Cognitive Scientist of Music Perception Mari Tervaniemi

Mari and I in Minerva Building

Does playing music to a not-yet-born child in the womb have a positive effect on the brain’s development? Yes, says Mari Tervaniemi, a brain research scientist who was one of the pioneers in the cognitive science of music perception when the field started in the 1980’s. She is still working in that area. On the other hand music can also help to treat dementia and Parkinson’s disease. The  youngest (born) participants in a Mari Tervaniemi’s experiment was 2 days old and the oldest were in their 90’s.

Stream if from here:

Currently Mari is working projects which you can find here:

www.cbru.helsinki.fi ,


In this interview Mari tells about the difficulties in the research, about people who, as a result of a brain injury, cannot speak, but can still sing and how they can recover and learn to speak again through music therapy. We talk about the importance of music education in schools and how music is related to language acquisition and many other things. As the usual topic of my podcasts is success in creative (art & science) careers we also dive into questions related to that. What was it like to start off in a very little investigated area and what was it like to be a female scientists? See below the list of questions with some commentaries.  Half of the questions were suggested to me by YOU, my audience; thanks for that! Unfortunately I couldn’t ask them all because of lack of time, although I’d really loved to.

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Line up with the topics.

The below times are absolute (the intro is taken into account).
00:00 Intro.

3:50 Were you the first one to connect music and the brain science?

4:55 Why is music such a human thing? What about animals?
Animals are known to react to music, but it is not clear wheather they actually enjoy it…
Researcher working in the area: Ani Patel,
Related: Dancing parrot!!

6:45 From newborn to old participants are used in the studies. Young participant: 2 days, oldest 93 years.
Related: Treating Parkinson’s with musicTreating dementia with music.

7:30 Why is it not so widely researched? Methodology limitation, is it just sound or music?

9:45 On music education in schools. Is it taught well enough?

13:00 Language and music in the brain.
– transfer effects
– music more than language
– brain damaged people who can sing but not speak
– Can someone lose the ability to sing but not speaking?

16:00 Congenital amusia

17:35 Different genres. Which improves your brain the most: jazz or classical music?

20:15 What kind of music is best for therapy?
– Favourite music is the best choice — at least for professionals!

22:15 Influence of the starting age (to start to play an instrument). Can you start late?

25:00 Being amusical is not your fault!

25:45 What is more primary: rhythm or melody?
– Musicians are often “either-or”
– May guide the choice of the instrument

27:45 How does music produce euphoria in one’s mind?
– Musical anhedonia

29:00 Why does some music sound happy (major) and some sad (minor)?
– It is mainly learned.

30:45 Catharsis. Why do we like sad music? How is it used in therapy.

33:00 When you are listening to music in the background (writing, jogging), it seems to affect the rhythm of motion and even thoughts. How does this happen and is there a general pace-maker in the brain? Related: Treating Parkinson’s disease with music 

35:20 Is rhythm perception related to neuron-synchronisation?

36:45 What was it like to start in a very small, little investigate area?

41:00 What would you recommend to do to someone who is starting in a new area today?
– Impossible question

42:15 Low motivation periods after big achievements.

43:00 Did you want to become a scientist already when you were 17?
– No way!

43:30 What it is like to be a woman scientist?

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