October 20, 2017
Is Music Really Good for the Brain?The answer is definitively a yes. But there are intriguing details to learn...
Undoubtedly, most of us have entertained the notion at one time or another that if we listen to music, like that of Mozart, we might do better in school, be more productive and creative at work, or even become smarter. If so, we can all admit to being mesmerized by the Mozart effect - the belief that listening to Mozart's music, in particular, can lead to enhanced intellectual and cognitive capabilities. In the mid-1990s, even the governor of Georgia was so moved by this theory that he allocated money in the state budget for nearly every newborn to be sent home from the hospital not only with essential baby supplies and nervous parents, but a CD of Mozart's music as well. And in a 2013 BBC story, it was reported that at least one farmer played Mozart's music for his livestock thrice daily, because he believed that doing so enabled the buffalos to produce higher-quality milk for his mozzarella.
The idea of the Mozart effect has been so deeply absorbed by our society that few question its validity. Many might be surprised to learn that Raucher, Shaw, and Ky's (1994) original study from which this widely-accepted phenomenon emerged was based on data gathered from only 34 college students; that listening to Mozart had positive effects only on spatial intelligence; and that these positive effects lasted only 15 minutes. While these study results were, no doubt, interesting and worth pursuing further, they're hardly a resounding exclamation point that listening to Mozart will make us smarter and have lasting effects on our brains. Yet, the theory has stuck, and people continue to count on Mozart to further elevate their intellectual capabilities.
So, what's the truth of the matter then? Does music, either playing or listening to it, really affect our brains - our intelligence, our emotions, or the actual structures and inner workings of our nervous system?
Researchers do contend that music is processed in the brain differently than other sounds, like speech or everyday noises. In a 2012 study, Alluri and colleagues examined participants' brains using FMRI and found that different regions in the brain were activated by different acoustical features of music, such as timbre, tonality, and rhythm. Timbre appeared to be associated with activation of cognitive and sensory regions, and tonality and rhythm with cognitive, motor, and emotional regions. In a further 2013 study by Alluri et al., in which participants' brains were scanned using FMRI while listening to music from various genres, including music with and without lyrics, immediate emotional responses to music listening were associated with activation of different regions of the brain, such as the auditory, limbic, and motor cortices.
Researchers from MIT recently studied neuronal activity in the brain in response to listening to music, in order to better understand whether the processing of music is "piggy-backed" on other brain functions, or whether the perception of music happens along specific neural pathways. Using FMRI data from 10 participants who listened to recordings of 165 different sounds, including music, speech, and everyday noises, the researchers determined that music, regardless of genre, does have its own mechanisms for processing within the auditory cortex. Completely different neural pathways were used to process other types of sound, a notion that has advanced the understanding of the way the brain processes music. While not examined in this particular study, the researchers surmised that other regions in the brain are responsible for processing the emotional and expressive elements of music.
If music has its own mechanisms for processing within the brain, surely music must have positive effects on the brain. After all, much data exists suggesting a correlation between music and areas of life directly tied with brain function: performance in school, productivity at work, optimal physical and mental health, quality of life for people with such conditions as Alzheimer's disease - and this merely scratches the surface of this ever-growing field of research and advocacy.
Music education in public schools is a hot topic, and all too often, music programs are cut from thread-bear budgets, much to the dismay of those who believe strongly in the power of music to enrich the lives of students from kindergarten through high school. Solid evidence "proving" the potential positive effects of music on the brain, and presumably student achievement as well, is vital for parents, students, administrators, and teachers desperately trying to keep school-sponsored music programs afloat.
In a 2-part 2014 study, Zuk, Benjamin, and Kenyon found that adults and children with musical training did exhibit cognitive advantages over their non-musically-trained counterparts. Adults with prior musical training performed better on tests of cognitive flexibility, working memory, and verbal fluency; and the musically-trained children performed better in verbal fluency and processing speed. The musically-trained children also exhibited enhanced brain activation in the areas associated with "executive functioning" compared to children who had no previous musical training.
If music does affect the brain in ways that manifest in enhanced academic achievement, then professional organizations and large-scale research efforts provide statistics that lend support to this theory. The National Association for Music Education, as well as researchers from the University of Kansas, contend that participation in high-quality music programs in school is associated with higher GPA, SAT and ACT scores, IQ, and other standardized test scores, as well as fewer disciplinary problems, better attendance, and higher graduation rates.
Youth aren't the only members of society whose brains are like sponges soaking up all the benefits music has to offer. As the baby-boomer generation moves into and through their golden years, Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and general cognitive decline, unfortunately, touch the lives of all-too-many. Music provides a unique window into understanding these conditions, and also provides a unique avenue for treatment and enhanced quality of life for patients and caregivers alike - due, in large part, to the potential powerful effects of music on the aging brain.
In one study of individuals with Alzheimer's disease, Jacobson et al. used FMRI, other imaging techniques, and metabolic markers to suggest that areas of the brain most strongly associated with musical memory appeared to be less detrimentally affected by Alzheimer's disease than other areas of the brain typically ravaged by the disease - which is why music is such an important element when studying and treating individuals experiencing cognitive decline.
In a 2010 study, Simmons-Stern et al. found that individuals with Alzheimer's disease had better verbal recall of children's songs when the lyrics were sung to the participants rather than simply read aloud; and these same facilitative effects of sung lyrics were not observed in individuals without Alzheimer's disease. In a further 2013 study, individuals with moderate-to-severe dementia who participated in a 4-month group singing program scored better on cognitive tests than individuals who simply listened to the others singing. In support of such promising findings, the Alzheimer's disease Foundation of America (as cited in "The Independent") suggests, "When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements." Similarly, the AARP advocates that music enhances mood and cognitive abilities, and may even lessen the need for psychotropic drugs to treat the symptoms of cognitive decline. As world-renowned neurologist, Oliver Sacks, explained with regard to Alzheimer's and dementia patients, "Music is no luxury to them, but a necessity, and it can have a power beyond anything else to restore them to themselves, and to others, at least for a while."
Despite the promising statistics, theories, personal anecdotes, and compelling arguments, some do still call into question whether music really does have such powerful effects on the brain - and such doubts are not entirely without support from within the research community. For example, even the National Association for Music Education acknowledges that some research does not support the notion that participation in music education provides any sort of advantages with regard to academic achievement. Additionally, While acknowledging the countless potential benefits of learning to play a musical instrument, some researchers contend that doing so may not actually boost intelligence in young minds as is often believed. In a study of 29 preschool children and their parents randomly assigned to either music or visual arts classes, researchers from Harvard examined the effects of the classes on cognition, vocabulary, math, and spatial ability of the preschoolers. Only on one of the spatial tasks did the children from the music class perform better than the children who participated in the visual arts class. Even in a larger replication study that included a control group of children who received neither music nor visual arts training, no significant differences among the groups emerged, suggesting that music may not be any more beneficial than visual arts training, or in some cases, no arts exposure at all. Samuel Mehr, one of the researchers, said, despite their findings, "There's a compelling case to be made for teaching music that has nothing to do with extrinsic benefits... Every single culture in the world has music, including music for children. Music says something about what it means to be human, and it would be crazy not to teach this to our children."
So, where do VSM Users fall into the mix? To learn more, we conducted a survey earlier this spring, to which over 700 of VSM's Users voluntarily responded. We asked Users to let us know whether making music and listening to music had positive, negative, or no effects on a variety of areas that we thought might be indicative of music's direct or indirect effects on the brain, including concentration, memory, attention, mood, creativity, alertness, self-esteem, sleep quality,, and overall physical health. While our survey was rather informal and non-scientific, and our analysis simplistic, the data we gathered was rich and plentiful. Here are some of the highlights:
Many Users commented that listening to and making music have played an important role in enhancing mood and alleviating symptoms of depression, which reflects the findings from a 2011 study. Seventy-nine individuals diagnosed with depression were randomly assigned to a "standard care" only group (involving medication and traditional therapy), or a music therapy + standard care group. Music therapy involved one-on-one sessions with a music therapist in which the individual was given opportunities to improvise music using a mallet instrument, a percussion instrument, or an African djembe drum. Individuals who underwent music therapy along with standard care exhibited greater improvements in depression, anxiety, and general functioning than those who received standard care only. The differences between groups did, however, diminish after 3 months. One of the researchers commented, "Music therapy has specific qualities that allow people to express themselves and interact in a non-verbal way - even in situations when they cannot find the words to describe their inner experiences."
With a simple survey like the one we created and administered, it is not possible to study some of the finite ways that music may affect the brain, such as processing speed. In an experiment comparing individuals with and without previous musical training, study Participants with prior musical training exhibited faster processing speeds of synthesized speech sounds than those with no musical training. While the "millisecond" difference observed between the 2 groups may seem negligible, the researchers contended that the cumulative effects of this more efficient processing may prove beneficial in the aging brain.
Evidence for the effects of music on the brain is interesting and potentially impactful, but the research required to uncover these phenomena is often no easy feat. For one thing, it is rather difficult to study music's effects on the brain, and any resultant manifestations of these effects in everyday life, experimentally. After all, in order to "prove" cause-and-effect scientifically, study participants must be randomly assigned to experimental and control conditions - groups to be compared, and that are equal in all respects except for, say, one group listening to or playing music and the other not. Additionally, all other variables that could impact the study's results must be controlled - something very, very difficult to achieve when studying humans, and even more so when studying humans outside of a laboratory setting. Some research merely establishes correlations between listening to and making music with other variables of interest, which is a weaker, non-experimental research design, and is, thus, not the same as establishing cause-and-effect.
It must also be considered that music's effects on the brain could be somewhat indirect. For example, music may not be the direct cause of students achieving better grades in school; but if music improves students' self-esteem, and improved self-esteem gives students the confidence they need to work hard and strive in school, then music has had an indirect, although no less powerful, effect on a student's academic performance. Finally, even if research is conducted and promising results emerge, such findings need to be replicated in further studies for theories to form and hold ground.
Another element to consider is that countless variables could mediate the effects that music has on the brain and its functions. For example, listening to preferred music may be the catalyst for music's effects on the brain. Familiarity versus novelty of music must also be considered, as well as whether a musician is a novice or highly-experienced artist.
The bottom line is that research must continue, questions must still be pondered, and advocacy for music across the lifespan must be vigorous. Whether or not hard scientific proof exists, and even if we can only count on the placebo effects of music, the indirect effects of music, or anecdotal evidence of the power of music to affect intellect, cognition, mood, and other brain-related functions, music's positive effects cannot be understated. Chances are, if you listen to, play, or teach music that you enjoy and that touches your mind, body, heart, and spirit, your brain will be better for it.
What's your experience with music?
Does it help you with your mood and mind? Post your comments below!
Comments or Questions
Comments or Questions:
Carolyn Booth on December 4, 2017 @3:28 am PST
Is there any research into Dementia progress in musicians? My husband has a diagnosis of dementia (Alzheimers and vascular) having been a professional percussionist for 60+ years but the progress is slower than we were led to believe. Are we just lucky or is the fact that he plays the drum kit, timps, tuned percussion and reads music almost every day playing a significant part?
Jennifer Vose - moderator and CEO, on December 4, 2017 @9:26 am PST
Thank you Carolyn, thank you for posting your comment. I am not a doctor, a neurologist nor a psychiatrist, but I am sure music has helped your husband a great deal.
It has been proven that damaged brain (either from a trauma, genetic or degenerative causes) can be improved, and most people can recover from brain damage a big deal. I don't see why music cannot be considered even just an additional tool to help with that.
Just yesterday I watched this amazing video by Dr. Daniel Amen, and I encourage anyone to watch it:
Ronit Rieser on December 2, 2017 @7:05 pm PST
I teach string orchestra in an elementary school. I have had 2 students who had very severe reading disabilities in English. Both also had trouble learning to read music. Between the 4 to 5 month point, they began to catch on to reading music. I found out from their teachers that by month 6, they each had progessed two grade levels in reading.
Christine Ayala on November 15, 2017 @5:32 am PST
As a singer, I have been deeply affected by the lyrics of the songs that I sing, both sacred and secular. I thought this was the most I could be affected, but was pleasantly surprised upon my first hearing of Samuel Adler's Adagio for Strings. No words, just music. I found myself becoming very emotional. I sat in a room with 2 strangers and we were all spellbound by the driving force of these strings. So in conclusion. I think it's both words and music. But the biggest weight falls mainly on the music.
There was another experience that I had. At Lake Victoria, there was a krumb horn player that was across the lake in the apex of 2 mountains. No one, sang the words, but I knew the words. He played the famous hymn, Holy, holy, holy. Something very strange happened. I was moved to tears and couldn't talk for an hour. My friend who also heard this said the same thing happened to her. Music, nature and acoustics all had a part in this experience.
BruceF75 * VSM MEMBER * on November 11, 2017 @3:17 pm PST
I began taking cello lessons when I was 43. (I had played drums in marching and dance bands and sang in choirs in high school and college.) My work was consuming me, and I needed something that captured my attention that wasn't work. After a couple of years of lessons, I found an orchestra that would take any and all comers,and I joined. On Wednesday night I would come home from work, tired and tense. I went to orchestra and concentrated on playing the music for two hours, with a short break. When I left orchestra my mind was at peace, and that night I slept wonderfully. I have kept playing (now I'm 78) and find that while I have to concentrate hard, I really am relaxed overall. Music has been a wonderful addition to my life.
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 11, 2017 @6:31 pm PST
Hi Bruce! What a perfect example of how it is never too late in life to embark on learning an instrument - either for someone like you who had previous musical experience, or even for someone who has never played an instrument before. It sounds like playing with an orchestra has had huge benefits for your mental health - a perfect respite from the many stresses of daily life! Best of luck to you in all of your musical endeavors....
Christine Ayala on November 7, 2017 @3:24 pm PST
My daughter was a brilliant bassoonist with bipolar disease. She never was medicated. However, she played classical music from the time she was 13, right through high school and college. I believe it was the music that calmed the savage beast in her. A specific type of music, classical music was all she listened to and played. She had a high IQ and she read music very very well, I believe it was the innate music ability and the early training that increased her intelligence. Also, I have seen the opposite. I raised her son for 18 years. He also was diagnosed as bipolar. He did take medicine from time to time. His music of choice was violent and explicative Rap. He has become verbally abusive and violent at times. His concentration is very short and he has difficulty maitining peace and calm.
Jennifer Vose - moderator and CEO, on November 7, 2017 @4:39 pm PST
Thank you Christine for your comment and provided information, what you have described is very compelling. It is amazing how the relationship between music and our minds can take different paths and shapes according to each one's experience, mindset and personal issues (if any).
I really appreciated your comment, plentiful of very interesting and unique information. Thank you very much.
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 11, 2017 @6:38 pm PST
Thanks so much, Christine, for your very thoughtful post. Music seems to have had such dramatic effects on your daughter and grandson, and like you said, in such very different ways. I suppose that so many factors can influence the musical path one ends up traversing, and it's so cool that your daughter found such grounding in the bassoon and classical music. This does beg the question - do we seek the music that seems to feed our inner needs or are our mental, emotional, and spiritual states influenced by the music we "choose?" The mark of a great discussion is when we end up with more questions than answers! Thanks again, Christine!
Joost Vanbrussel on November 3, 2017 @2:35 pm PST
A fine and interesting article, indeed. As there is a direct effect on the mood of the listerener (or the player), now we should go further in our exploration : which emotions are aroused by music, and with which means can music prompt particular emotions ( tempo? key? timbre of the musical instruments? the texts of songs, operas, oratoria? the circumstances in which music is performed? inner-musical effects aiming at our emotions? etc.....
I am very anxious to know it all.....
Jennifer Vose - moderator and CEO, on November 7, 2017 @4:37 pm PST
Very god points Joost, the more we dive into this subject the more we see its complexity. Would be really interesting to find out the effects of each one of the elements you have highlighted. Maybe we'll expand our research in there!
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 11, 2017 @6:43 pm PST
Great questions, Joost! I often wonder, when I listen to music, if the emotions I am experiencing are what the composer had in mind when they wrote the music or if other people are having similar emotional experiences as we listen to the same piece of music. So, so many factors must come into play when it comes to the moods and emotions evoked by music, and if there was any way to study this, what fascinating research it would be! Thanks so much for your comment, Joost!
Phil Circle on October 28, 2017 @9:19 am PST
I've been a musician all my life and a teacher since 1993. I've seen younger students who I didn't know had any learning "disabilities" experience heightened grades in school after about six months of lessons, only to hear afterwards from their parents that they had this or that disability. My (loose) research on it, including consulting an adult student who was a neurologist, indicated that the fact that playing music "lights up" the entire brain makes it possible for new pathways to develop around the "rough switches" that cause the learning issues for the student. I discuss this briefly in my book, an autobiography, The Outback Musician's Survival Guide. Again, I use non-scientific research methods, ha.
Thank you for continuing to spread the word that music is beneficial to education and overall mental and physical health.
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 3, 2017 @12:04 pm PST
Hello Phil! I love the image of the brain "lighting up" as a result of music learning. And it's so cool to know that, from your own personal experience (which, in my opinion, is just as valuable as scientifically-gathered data), students benefit so richly from being involved with music. That must be so rewarding for you. Perhaps some Users might like to check out your autobiography as well. Thanks so much for your comments!
Elaine Kendrick on October 26, 2017 @11:44 am PST
My study in the late 1970's showed that 6 1/2 year old children in the music and reading groups, with beginning reading problems did better than the children in the other control groups. presented at the ISME research seminar,1980.
Jennifer Vose - moderator and CEO, on October 26, 2017 @4:44 pm PST
That's fantastic to know Elaine. That confirms one more time that music plays a big role in intellect development.
Thank you for your contribution, appreciated.
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 3, 2017 @12:08 pm PST
Hello Elaine! Thanks so much for sharing your research findings with us. Fascinating! Clearly, this idea that music has such widespread benefits is not a new concept - but how amazing that so many are still fighting to "prove" that music deserves a place in schools alongside all the other important subjects. I'm sure your findings have helped a great deal though in establishing a body of evidence to further the cause. Your work is much appreciated!
Paul Cavaciuti on October 25, 2017 @5:09 am PST
This is a very interesting article, but I think the methodology of all the studies listed is too crude to answer the question posed, "Is Music Really Good for the Brain?" Firstly, they all make the assumption that music is just one thing; organised sound. The MIT study, for instance, differentiated between random environmental sounds, such as a toilet flushing, and a 'piece of music' in order to determine which parts of the brain processed which sound. Sure enough, it found that the pathways used were different. However, without looking at this effect in its relationship to other parts of the brain, there is no way of knowing whether it is beneficial or not. And it is in observing the relationships in the brain that I believe we would notice differences in the way different types of music and sound production are processed.
Conversely, those who report beneficial effects on a survey are not necessarily in a position to report whether they have benefitted or not; someone bouncing around to loud techno music at a rave with a head full of MDMA may believe that the music is 'energising' them, but we have no way of knowing whether that 'energy' is helping or hurting the person, beyond their, possibly unreliable, subjective testimony.
Similarly, when the National Association of Music Education reports that music may not be all that beneficial, we have no way of knowing what is actually being taught as music. Are they singing hymns, popular song from the 1930s, or are they fooling around on Sibelius? Are they playing instruments? If so, are they doing it for examination grades or for fun?
As I see it, the problem is that the studies are a good start, but they don't look deeply enough into the nature of music. Mozart and P-Diddy are not the same and they don't do the same things to the brain. (Sorry, not advocating Mozart necessarily; Campbell's book was one of the most misleading contributions to the debate). Music played on a synthesiser is not the same as that played on a trumpet. There is a qualitative difference in listening to digital and analogue music in terms of its effect on the brain. Teaching a child to play from a score and play by ear does different things to the brain, and so on and so on. This is deep, complicated stuff, and if we want any kind of a definitive answer to the question, "Is Music Really Good for the Brain?" we need to be much clearer about what we mean by "Music" and "Brain", and as to "Good", we need objective clinical criteria that we can examine.
Jennifer Vose - moderator and CEO, on October 25, 2017 @10:02 am PST
Very good points Paul, I agree with you. I think that this is a topic which probably we won't ever have a definitive answer for. The more we read and research about it, the more doubts and questions come up.
I think we all can assume pretty safely that music is mostly beneficial to human beings, under different aspects (pleasure, fun, education, learning, etc).
But of course, it is an open discussion in its specific terms.
Jennifer Vose - host, on November 3, 2017 @12:29 pm PST
Well, Paul, if ever an argument was made highlighting the complexity of this topic, and the need for continued, well-designed research, you've made it! Thanks so much for your very thoughtful comments. Another variable I came across in my reading was preference and enjoyment that is, the potential effects of music may depend on the degree to which an individual enjoys or prefers the music they are playing or to which they are listening. Yet another layer to this mountain of questions and variables to consider! As far as our survey, we are definitely aware of its limitations, and we really were only trying to gather some interesting, User-based data on individuals' own subjective, personal experiences. Survey research would definitely not be the method of choice when trying to establish any sort of cause-and-effect relationships, but we did gather lots of rich, interesting information about Users' experiences and impressions - which, in some ways, is just as valuable. But, more work must be done! Thanks again for posting!
Peter Ma on October 21, 2017 @8:15 pm PST
I am one of the VSM users who participated in the said VSM survey. At this moment, I no longer recall how I responded to the individual questions in the survey, and so cannot tell how my response would compare with the overall survey results released by VSM. But realizing now the purpose of the survey, a question has come up in my mind: Did the survey ask what my experience had been, or rather what I thought my experience had been. Note that whereas my response to the latter could be so and so, my response to the former could well be "no idea". I hope this subtle point, though brought up too late, would be useful towards VSM's other surveys in future.
Jennifer Vose - moderator and CEO, on October 23, 2017 @8:45 am PST
Good point Peter, the survey was mostly aimed to collect "actual information" from the users, and I think most of them have answered about their actual experience. I am sorry that wasn't enough clear, but I think that in any case, even by just "thinking" about the "possible" effect of music based on your own background, is anyway useful data that can be, in my opinion, aggregated in the information shown above without distorting the final results.
Jennifer Vose - host, on October 23, 2017 @5:42 pm PST
Hello Peter! Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment, and for participating in the survey! You bring up a very good point, and like Fabrizio said in his reply, I think our interest was in gathering Users' impressions of their own experiences. Without knowing for sure exactly what might be actually happening in your own brain and body, you may only be able to respond based on your lived experience, which provided us with plenty of rich data to examine. We'll be sure to be clear in our instructions for future surveys so everyone is on the same page. Thanks for your insights...
Display more comments... (4 more)
Alluri, V., Toiviainen, P., Jääskeläinen, I. P., Glerean, E., Sams, M., & Brattico, E. (2012). Large-scale brain networks emerge from dynamic processing of musical timbre, key and rhythm. Neuroimage, 59(4), 3677-3689. [link]
Alluri, V., Toiviainen, P., Lund, T. E., Wallentin, M., Vuust, P., Nandi, A., Ristaniemi, T., & Brattico, E. (2013). From Vivaldi to Beatles and back: Predicting lateralized brain responses to music. Neuroimage, 83, 627-636. [link]
Geist, M. E. (2015). The healing power of music. AARP Bulletin, (July/August), [link]
Hammond, C. (2013). Does listening to music really boost your brain power? BBC. [link]
Jacobson, J. H., Stelzer, J., Fritz, T. H., Chételat, G., La Joie, R., & Turner, R. (2015). Why musical memory can be preserved in advanced Alzheimer's disease. Brain, 138, 2438-2450. [link]
National Association for Music Education. (2017). Music education and academic achievement. [link]
Paddock, C. (2011). Music therapy may alleviate depression. Medical News Today. [link]
Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G., & Ky, C. N. (1994). Music and spatial task performance: A causal relationship. [link]
Reuell, P. (2013). Muting the Mozart effect. Harvard Gazette. [link]
Simmons-Stern, N. R., Budson, A. E., & Brandon, A. A. (2010). Music as a memory enhancer for patients with Alzheimer's disease. Neuropsychologia, 48(10), 3164-3167. [link]
Trafton, A. (2015). Music in the brain. MIT News. [link]
Weber, B. (2013). Music training in childhood boosts the brain in adulthood. Medical News Today. [link]
Withnall, A. (2013). Singing boosts brain activity in Alzheimer's patients, scientists say. The Independent, [link]
Woodard, B., & Warnock, J. D. (2014). KU research establishes link between music education, academic achievement. University of Kansas. [link]
Zuk, J., Benjamin, C., & Kenyon, A. (2014). Behavioral and neural correlates of executive functioning in musicians and non-musicians. PLOS One. [link]
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