The Benefits of Music and the Science Behind It
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As long as people have been around, there has been music. Early humans used bone and ivory to make flutes. Archeologists have found examples that date back 60 000 years including a flute made from bear bones.
Before even those instruments, humans likely used the instruments they were born with, their voices. Of course, we don’t have archeological evidence for this. Our paleolithic ancestors didn’t write lyrics or sheet music for us to find.
However, studies have shown that areas of caves with the best acoustics have the highest number of cave paintings. This suggests that our earliest ancestors painted as a part of a musical ritual.
So what is it about music that is so enduring? What has made it part of our culture and being for millennia?
Well, science may have the answer.
You see, study after study has shown that our bodies, minds, and communities respond positively to music. It’s not all just about mood though. Music has the power to change the way we think, to aid our learning, and to create societal bonds.
In a sense, music is magic. It has an almost mythical power to change the world. Think about how much of a cultural impact musical phenomena like Woodstock, The Beatles, Live Aid and so many more had on the world. And that’s just in living memory.
While scientists have been working hard to decode the effect of music on our bodies, there is undeniably some sort of unexplainable draw in music. Something that can be felt but not explained.
But, as the unexplainable is pretty dang hard to explain, we’re going to focus on the observable and proveable benefits of music.
Can Music Save Your Soul: How Does Music Affect Human Beings?
Music’s reach in the body and psyche is huge. There are so many different ways that music makes our lives and health better.
To make it easier to understand we’ve split this section into four parts. That doesn’t mean that these four areas are isolated from each other. In fact, they work in tandem. When music impacts our heart rate it has a knock-on effect that touches our brains, mood, and personality.
So, while we’ve separated the effects of music you shouldn’t think of music as an individual tonic. Think of it as a holistic treatment that can target a number of ailments, issues, and conditions.
Biological Responses to Music
Music has a beat just like your heart has a beat. Some even argue that music is a direct creation of the heartbeat.
They suggest that the rhythms and tempos used in musical compositions harken back to the sound of our mothers’ pulse that we hear in the womb.
What is indisputable, however, is that music has a measurable effect on your heart. The pounding of drums and strumming of strings can increase or decrease your heart rate and blood pressure.
In several studies, patients were found to have reduced heart rates and blood pressure when their medical treatment was supplemented with music. A lower heart rate is generally a sign of reduced anxiety and stress. Both of which are common side effects of medical treatment.
Music can also help increase your blood flow. This might seem contradictory when we’ve just spoken about reducing heart rates but it’s not. When your heart beats faster, it tends to pump less efficiently meaning that your blood flow is actually reduced.
Volunteers who listened to music in one study saw a 26% increase in blood flow. This offers the same benefits to the body as aerobic exercise. Namely an increase in oxygen levels which can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Making music can also impact our lungs. Woodwind players, brass players, and singers have been found to have better lung capacities than non-musicians. This is because of the way they use their lungs to blow air and create music.
Creating a sound from brass or woodwind instruments requires a significant amount of air. Wind and brass musicians train their lungs to cope with the demands of their instrument through practice. The same is true of singing.
Surprisingly, playing a musical instrument can also impact our posture and muscle tone.
Musicians are often characterized as weedy, nerdy characters in many media portrayals. Those of us who played in the school band probably remember the teasing and jokes made at our expense.
However, playing an instrument requires a huge amount of dexterity, poise, and in some cases, endurance and strength. I mean, have you seen the size of a tuba?
Musicians tend to have better posture and core muscles because they need to hold their instruments correctly. Wind and brass players in particular need to get their posture and positioning right so that they can breathe freely.
Drummers have a notoriously strenuous occupation. The stamina and muscle tone it takes to be a gigging drummer is insane. According to one study, an hour-long show can see a drummer burning around 600 calories.
Then there’s the fact that the repetitive actions used to play many instruments can actually help tone those muscles. Singers, wood, and brass musicians have been found to have better muscle tone than their peers. Drummers have incredible shoulder, back, and arm muscles.
Ok, they’re not going to win a bodybuilding competition but the benefits of their instrument on their body are measurable and undeniable.
Neurological Responses to Music
This is a vast field. Music impacts the brain in so many ways from encouraging it to release chemicals and hormones to dredging up long-forgotten memories.
There have been and continues to be many studies investigating how the brain responds to music.
We’ll do our best to give you a snapshot of all this research but we recommend reading around the subject too.
One of the best things about music and the brain is the fact that listening to music activates so many different parts of our grey matter. There isn’t one central music lobe instead, we get a whole-brain workout.
Pitch is decoded in the right temporal lobe. Timbre, which helps us identify which instrument is being played, activates a part of the brain called the posterior Heschl’s gyrus and superior temporal sulcus. The cerebellum is in charge of the rhythm and our frontal lobe deals with the emotional interpretation of music.
Scientists have found used MRI and PET scans to observe the brain as it listens to music and it lights up like a Christmas tree. This is excellent for our health as the brain continues to learn and develop throughout our lives. This process is thanks to something called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity refers to the way that our neural pathways are like plastic in that they can be molded and shaped throughout our lives. Using different areas of the brain frequently can help keep our neural pathways flexible and ready to change. If you don’t activate and stimulate your brain these pathways can become fixed and inflexible.
Music aids neuroplasticity because it triggers so many different parts of the brain. You might not think it, but your brain has to work really hard to understand and interpret music. Music is quite mathematical and architectural. Your brain needs to work out all the patterns and designs.
Increased neuroplasticity leads to increased brain function which can help keep our brains healthy.
This is becoming increasingly clear in studies examining the effect of music on memory. Studies have shown that memories connected and formed with music are more resilient to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Patients suffering from memory-related illnesses have shown better recall when music associated with a particular memory is played.
Try it yourself. Think about a memory associated with music, perhaps it’s your wedding, your first concert, a really great party. Most people find it easier to recall the details of that sort of memory compared to memories without music.
In a similar vein, music can help us learn. The Mozart effect has been well documented over the years. It’s the idea that listening to Mozart can boost our ability to complete and comprehend certain mental tasks.
Listening to music activates both the left and right sides of the brain. When both hemispheres of the brain are activated our brains are more receptive to learning.
Music switches on all those different areas we mentioned earlier. It means that signals and neural pathways can form and move between all the different areas of our brains with less resistance.
Essentially, having background music on while you study opens up many blocks and gates in your brain that would otherwise make learning more difficult.
The type of music you play is important. Calm, instrumental music is best for committing things to memory and processing large amounts of information. The instruments fire up your brain but the lack of lyrics gives your brain space to process the information.
Faster paced music is better for learning vocabulary and languages. This is because the tempo and rhythm are closer to our speaking speed. Rhythm is super useful for remembering things. Think about how you learned the alphabet or the number of songs in children’s programs.
Another way music impacts the brain is by changing the way we feel pain. Pain is a neurological response to a stimulus. It is not an actual thing merely our brain’s interpretation of something else.
Let’s say, for example, something hot touches our skin. The message gets sent to the brain through the nervous system via the spinal cord. The brain registers that message as a painful and dangerous stimulus and it creates a pain response that is felt by the nerves. It is known as the gate control theory of pain.
Pain killers, anesthesias, and analgesics work to reduce and block pain by preventing the signals from getting further up the nervous system. If your brain doesn’t get the message, you don’t get the pain.
There is some clinical evidence and lots of anecdotal evidence that suggests that music can be an effective form of pain relief. It doesn’t work in the same way as pain killers as it can’t block nerves.
What music does do is distract the brain. When the brain focuses on music rather than the pain signals and sensations, it can’t create the pain response as effectively. It’s the equivalent of dangling a set of keys in front of a crying baby. They forget whatever it was that was bothering them in the first place and focus on the keys.
The other way that music can reduce pain is through the production of endorphins and dopamine. Both of these are happy hormones and help to reduce pain in interesting ways.
Endorphins are created when we take part in pleasurable activities like listening to music. The endorphins coat the opiate receptors in the brain and block pain transmissions. Once the body detects endorphins, it begins to release dopamine.
Dopamine is part of our brain’s reward system. When you do something good, your brain releases dopamine. This makes us feel happy and motivated. When we listen to music as a way of providing pain relief, it first blocks the pain and then makes the experience pleasurable.
Of course, music has its limits. No one is suggesting that you can replace anesthesia with music for surgery. However, music does seem to be particularly effective for some conditions especially chronic pain conditions.
Psychological Responses to Music
Have you ever watched a horror movie and felt fear creep over you when the tense music starts?
How about when you hear a song that you’ve been using as your alarm sound? Does it fill you with a sense of dread?
This is all because we build associations with certain sounds and songs. If we build positive associations with a type or genre of music then our brain gives us a dopamine hit when we hear it again. It’s sort of like a Pavlovian response but with less saliva.
Equally, negative associations can make us feel scared or stressed when we hear a particular song or genre. This is a helpful response even if it’s not the most pleasant. It is our body’s way of keeping us safe.
Remember the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? That screeching violin has come to be a shorthand for danger. When we hear we know that we can expect something dangerous or frightening.
Music’s effect on our mood and emotions goes beyond associations, however. The actual sound of certain chords makes us feel different emotions. Remember how we talked about the frontal lobe and how it interprets emotional responses? That’s because the frontal lobe is the emotional center of our brain.
When we hear minor chords, for example, our frontal lobe interprets them as sad or melancholy. Major chords, on the other hand, are decidedly happy according to our frontal lobes.
The only reason we can make this interpretation is that the music triggers that particular emotional response. The brain hears a song and thinks to itself; ‘oh ok, I know what this is. This is sad. Let’s hit the sad buttons.’
While we’re talking about sadness, let’s talk about the sympathetic response we get from listening to music. The old cliche focuses on breakups. When we go through a break up we listen to breakup music and cry out our heartache.
Well, studies have shown that this is actually a healthy and positive experience overall. Listening to music that matches our mood helps us feel understood and heard. It’s similar to having a friend or family member who listens to you and validates your feelings.
Upbeat music can motivate us as well as making us feel happier. If you’ve ever watched the Olympics, you’ll have noticed that a lot of athletes are plugged into music before they compete.
There are two reasons for this. The first is to do with stress. For many people, listening to music they love or soothing music can help them feel more relaxed and calm. This is because music can lower our heart rate and release happy hormones as we’ve already discussed.
The second reason is down to motivation. Music can make use run harder, jump further, and last longer. Music helps to stimulate us by breaking us out of the routine tasks we complete each day, it wakes us from a stupor of emails, meetings, and chores.
Also, the auditory neurons are connected to the motor neurons which create movement. When one is stimulated the other one is also stimulated. This is a holdover from the days when we had to run from potential threats like saber tooth tigers. It paid to be able to run and listen for sounds of pursuit.
Another key feature of music and motivation is our body’s need to match a beat. Think about the exercise classes in gyms. A lot of them are set to music. This is because a beat can help our motor neurons understand what they need to do.
Once we find the rhythm and we start to match it, we get a boost of endorphins and dopamine. This makes us feel good about what we are doing. We feel more confident and our self-esteem gets a boost.
Because our brains are dopamine junkies, we are more likely to continue an activity that gives us a dopamine hit. Thus, we find ourselves more motivated to exercise and more able to push ourselves.
This doesn’t only work for Zumba. If you add music to your morning run or your gym routine, you’ll likely see a boost in confidence and stamina. It is particularly effective if you can find music that matches the tempo of your workout.
On the other end of the spectrum, music can help us relax and reduce stimulation. Listening to something with a slower tempo and rhythm encourages us to slow down. Our breathing naturally slows to match the rhythm making us calmer.
Music has long been used in meditation and relaxation as a way of focusing on breathing and calming thoughts. It’s why we have lullabies for babies. They don’t always understand the words but they do recognize and match the tempo.