Music is possibly the most consistent companion we have throughout our lives. From our morning commute to cherished occasions like weddings and graduation, music accompanies us and enriches our experience.
If you were to scan your brain while enjoying your favorite tune, it would reveal a stunning kaleidoscope of activity. Listening to and playing music engages a diverse set of brain functions and its influence touches a complex variety of neural networks. There is no single music center in the brain. Instead, it communicates through vast pathways spanning different channels of the brain’s complex landscape.
Research indicates that, similar to meditation, listening to music benefits our health and well-being. Most of us have been steeped in a culture of music our whole lives and already utilize its positive effects to motivate, relax and regulate our moods. With the ability of MRIs to map brain activity, scientists are able to piece together how widespread the benefits of music really are. Here are five amazing ways music affects the brain.
Physical Healing and Performance
It’s no secret playing uplifting and energizing music can boost the performance of our exercise, but it can also lessen the pain of exertion, leading to longer workouts. Studies found listening to a song that matches the tempo of our workout can also help our bodies utilize oxygen more efficiently—another reason Van Halen is the star of my workout playlist.
More great news! It can also ease our physical pain, lower the emotional distress from the hurt, and help us reduce our need for pain medicine. When we put on our favorite playlists, our neurotransmitters release a flood of dopamine into the bloodstream, and aren’t we all living for that next rush of happy chemicals?
Music is also known to reduce stress and increase relaxation in patients both before and after life-altering events like surgery; there’s evidence to suggest it’s more effective at reducing fear and anxiety before a procedure than anxiolytic medication.
Does it matter what type of music you listen to? Yes, our music preferences directly influence the beneficial effects we receive. Whether it’s death metal, disco or downtempo, our brains show higher levels of connectivity when we listen to the songs we love. The context is highly important. The driving beat of a power ballad gets your blood pumping during a workout, but when you’re sitting down and trying to focus, that rainy-day lofi loop is a better fit.
Turning to soothing sounds can also help take the edge off stressful situations. Anyone else taking Enya baths these days? Experts say listening to calm and slow sounds regulates heart rate and blood pressure, so we can find some chill.
Listening to your favorite tune is sublime. It can give us the chills, but those songs we don’t like can really get under our skin! As anyone who’s seen the Shining can attest, unsettling melodies can induce feelings of fear and anxiety. Tunes we don’t like can increase cortisol. (Why does Kid Rock suddenly come to mind?!). Listening to our trusted sad songs on repeat can help us process our feelings of grief, heartbreak and loneliness, but it can also lead our brains into negative rumination loops.
The pleasure-inducing effect of music can actually aid our ability to learn and memorize. Background Muzac helped studying participants score significantly higher on memory and cognitive speed tests.
Our brains strongly associate the songs we hear with autobiographical memory. Listening to a certain melody reminds you of a significant time in your life and often triggers a flood of memories and emotions that take you right back to that place. Because of this link, music therapy can be a powerful tool in increasing quality of life and slowing down the effects of cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s, Dementia and Parkinson’s patients. Creating personalized playlists for their patients can help bridge the gap in memory, slow cognitive decline and vastly improve quality of life—and the effects can be immediate. Seeing it in action is nothing short of a miracle.
Emotional and Social Learning
Why do we love music? One theory of evolutionary science suggest is it evolved as a communication tool for our tree-dwelling ancestors, sending signals across the canopy. It has always been a powerful tool for bringing people together. Listening to music encourages empathy for others as well as self-awareness, and it helps us to develop emotional intelligence.
Love songs catalyze us to build closeness and romance with a potential partner. Hymns unify a group identity around faith. Protest tunes galvanize folks around an issue and evoke a sense of group purpose and cohesion. A gentle lullaby sung to a newborn can calm nerves, lull them to sleep and help the baby develop a secure attachment to its parent. These are just some of the nearly endless ways music enhances social connection.
Music activates many diverse networks of the brain associated with regulation of emotion, mood, memory and attention. It aids in neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form and restructure neural connections—which is important in learning a new skill or healing from injury.
The many benefits of music seem to be more dramatic when we learn to play an instrument. Playing an instrument, dancing or tapping your foot to the beat engages gross and fine motor skills. It has been shown to increase the grey matter in the corpus callosum, which fosters faster communication between the two brain hemispheres.
Use It or Lose It
We are born with substantially more neurons than we actually use. As we age, the brain snips connections with neural networks we don’t use; a process called synaptic pruning. Listening to the songs we hold so dear actually encourages the connections to remain strong, from our early development through the aging process, slowing our cognitive decline.
Music is an invaluable human tool with diverse benefits. With access to an unfathomable volume of music at our fingertips, weaving the amazing effects of music into your life is easier than ever.