If you had to make a playlist for your entire life, what would it sound like? From the nostalgic tunes of our childhood to the angsty backbeat of our teens and the soundtrack of our adult lives, music leaves behind a powerful impression.
Music can bring us to tears. It can uplift, engage, motivate and exhilarate. How?
Emotion and Social Cohesion
Evolutionary scientists theorize that music developed as a form of communication that touches our hearts and promotes social bonding. We have developed hard-wired responses to certain vocalizations. Across the animal kingdom, alert sounds tend to be loud, high in pitch and fast; think of the sharp sound of a dog barking or the high-pitched vibrato of a horse whinny.
Calming signals tend to be slower, softer and lower in pitch. Listen to the soft “goo-goos” and “gah-gahs” of a mother cooing to their newborn baby. The infant understands these changes in pitch far before gaining understanding of their language.
These different timbres convey different moods and meanings to us. Whereas our primate ancestors mainly relied on grooming as a tool for bonding and social cohesion. The oxytocin levels measured from singing in a group was nearly double the levels released from just socializing and chilling with their friends.
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The pleasure-inducing effect of music can actually aid our ability to learn and memorize. Background Muzak helped studying participants score significantly higher on memory and cognitive speed tests. Learning words from a new language is easier when accompanying it to a familiar tune.
Music releases dopamine which can allow us to focus on tasks like studying (or writing this article) for a longer duration and with greater focus. Music can also help with recovery from surgery or even a stroke. Patients recovering from a stroke who were able to listen to personalized playlists improved their verbal memory and focused attention.
Why is music so powerful? With MRI technology, scientists are able to track the effects of music on the brain and to piece together a complex map of brain activity. The results show a kaleidoscope of color spanning across diverse areas of the brain. Different pieces of music affect the brain in a variety of ways. Some are engage more with our emotion and memory centers, while other songs stimulate our motor skills and movement pathways.
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Music is a vessel for emotional potency. 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. 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.
From Bach to the Beatles to Billie Eilish, the type of tune plays an important role in how we respond. While slower songs tend to calm, relax or make us feel all the feels, higher tempo tunes can get us moving, increase our motivation or make us feel like a champion. (Cue “Eye of the Tiger”.)
Our brains strongly associate the memories we have with music. Our special tunes help us remember more than just words alone. Music lights up many different pathways of the brain. In particular, the connection between music and memory is deeply intertwined. That’s why everyone’s favorite tunes are extremely personal. Those songs represent more than just rhythm and melody. They are a personal record of the times that meant something to us, the feelings we’ve had, and the people we’ve loved.
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Benefits for Dementia and Alzheimer’s
This strong link between our own memories and the tunes associated with them makes music a powerful tool for people who are losing their life memories. In a small number of elderly care facilities across the world, a new type of prescription is being prepared that doctors and caregivers hope will lift the fog of dementia. It’s not a new pill or medication. It’s a personalized playlist, tailored to the patient’s own experiences.
The Music and Memory Program is a non-profit. Playing the right songs for patients can cut through the fog of dementia and bring a flood of memories and words to an otherwise withdrawn person. Seeing it in action is nothing short of a miracle. As Dr. Maggie Haertch, CEO of the Arts Health Institute describes, “Somehow it’s like a side door to the brain, and they can come alive for that moment, and when those memories come flooding back, it’s connecting them with identity again.”
Access to music can help orient patients and reduce their levels of agitation, where confused or stressed out individuals act out or shout in distress. This reduces the need for antipsychotic medications that are prescribed for agitation. Music can also help with pain or anxiety from surgery or the natural process of aging.
Music not only lights up the brain but also touches our heart and soul. Listening to our favorite tunes can unleash a flood of our personal memories and help us feel more like ourselves. It is easy to access, contains a multitude of benefits, and can reduce the need for costly medication. No matter what stage of life we’re in, the benefits of music can be astounding.