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How Does Listening to Music Affect People with Epilepsy?

December 28, 2023

By Amber Kaiser

Do you like listening to music? Have you ever wondered how our brains interpret music and if music has ever affected someone who has seizures or epilepsy?

I personally love listening to music every single day and I can’t imagine living without it! Even people who are deaf can hear music by “processing vibrations in the part of the brain that would otherwise be used to process sound.” Ludwig van Beethoven, the talented composer and pianist, is a well-known example of someone whose brain adapted to using vibration to hear music when his hearing started declining in his later 20s.

I think music is a “sound experience” which can also provoke emotion that most people like—and we all have different types of music we enjoy listening to whether it’s pop, hip-hop, jazz, classical, rock, rap, alternative, blues, folk. . .the genre list goes on and on! This time of year, in the U.S., listening to holiday tunes also becomes popular and there are many different genres of holiday music. In fact, there are so many styles of music and most of us can recognize pretty quickly the type of music when a song starts playing. There may also even be some music sounds we don’t like. Because I listen to different music so often and understand that many different parts of our brains interact with the sounds, I have wondered if music has ever helped some people with epilepsy. Read on to learn my findings about epilepsy and music therapy.

How music works in the brain

With years of research from a music class with the University of Central Florida, neuroscientist, Kiminobu Sugaya and world-renowned violinist, Ayako Yonetani, taught one of the most popular courses (not surprisingly!) called Music and the Brain. The course “explores how music impacts brain function and human behavior, including by reducing stress, pain and symptoms of depression as well as improving cognitive and motor skills, spatial-temporal learning and neurogenesis, which is the brain’s ability to produce neurons.”

There is also an interactive brain graphic showing which parts of our brains interact with music and how they interpret sounds in 12 areas of the brain including the frontal lobe, temporal lobes, cerebellum, both hippocampus and nucleus accumbens. You can click on each area to see what it does and how it interacts with the sound of music!

There have been different theories about certain kinds of music working better than others when it comes to how our brains interact with music, especially as we get older and if someone has Alzheimer’s. Music and neuroscience have created some interesting studies about music on the brain.

“Turns out, whether it’s rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, hip-hop or classical, your gray matter prefers the same music you do. ‘It depends on your personal background,’ Yonetani says. For a while, researchers believed that classical music increased brain activity and made its listeners smarter, a phenomenon called the Mozart effect. Not necessarily true, say Sugaya and Yonetani. In recent studies, they’ve found that people with dementia respond better to the music they grew up listening to. ‘If you play someone’s favorite music, different parts of the brain light up,’ Sugaya explains. ‘That means memories associated with music are emotional memories, which never fade out — even in Alzheimer’s patients.’”

In their research, they also concluded that music and brain health can go hand-in-hand and help the brain in a number of ways including changing your ability to perceive time, reducing seizures, assisting in repairing brain damage, evoking memories, making you smarter, making you a better communicator and helping Parkinson’s patients.

Have there been music and epilepsy studies?

After doing some research, I found quite a few music and seizure studies in NIH’s National Library of Medicine. Most of them say similar things like using music therapy as a non-pharmacological treatment for epilepsy. Music therapy and how it can help some people with refractory epilepsy isn’t understood, but thought to be “related to resonance, mirror neurons, dopamine pathways and parasympathetic activation.” Here are a few more findings in NIH:

-In a randomized controlled study, “Promising effects of daily listening to Mozart K.448 on reducing seizure frequency in individuals with epilepsy have been demonstrated.”

-Another study suggests that “daily Mozart listening may be considered as an adjunctive therapeutic option to reduce seizure burden in individuals with epilepsy.”

-A study was also done on children with epilepsy and the long-term effect of listening to Mozart K.448 decreasing epileptiform discharges.

-Here is a recent abstract explaining different types of sounds on the brain including audible and inaudible frequencies in relation to both music and infrasound. It is thought that “Hayden’s Symphony No. 94 appeared pro-epileptic;” whereas listening to Mozart K.448 (as noted above) has shown a reduction in seizures. The author also explains: “Infrasound is of concern since at present there are no reported studies on the effects of exposure to infrasound on epilepsy. Understanding the impact of infrasound on epilepsy is critical in an era where sustainable energies are likely to increase exposure.”

I was intrigued to find this in my research because, speaking from experience, it has taken me years to figure out what sound has affected me since my brain surgery and after seeing multiple doctors, I’ve learned I have a very high sensitivity with infrasound, low vibration frequency noises often created from human made motors in machines like everyday fans, drills, construction equipment which can be very tough for some people to hear especially people with epilepsy. I believe it is one of the reasons my seizures returned with how they affect my brain processing noise, and therefore, my entire central nervous system physically in a negative way. It is also thought that for some people with epilepsy, certain kinds of music may provoke a seizure called Musicogenic epilepsy. Although it is rare, a recent study was actually done on someone with Musicogenic seizures in temporal lobe epilepsy.

Closing thoughts about music and epilepsy

If you ever search the topic of music and epilepsy, you can definitely find plenty of information about music for brain health and a handful of valid studies that have been done. Music has had a positive impact on most people with epilepsy and has even helped some minimize their number of seizures by listening to certain kinds of classical music. It’s considered rare, but some people with Musicogenic epilepsy are affected by music and have seizures when they hear particular kinds of sounds in music. If you are interested in learning more, consider checking out the links in this article. You could even talk with your neurologist or epileptologist and ask them what they have to say about music therapy and epilepsy!

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