Music is one of the oldest art forms and a universal language across all human cultures, past and present. Everyone loves music – it doesn’t matter whether it’s jazz, classical, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, or even just a single song. What’s interesting is that the brain loves music, too.
Music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other stimulant. When scanned under an MRI, many different parts of the brain light up like a Christmas tree when listening to music. In fact, music is such a complex stimulus that an entire scientific discipline called Neuromusicology is dedicated to understanding how the brain perceives music.
Like many brain functions, the fundamental effect of music on the brain is not fully understood. But through case studies and extensive research, it’s clear that music somehow stimulates deep emotions, improves cognition and memory, alleviates stress, and soothes pain.
Let’s take a closer look at how music benefits the brain:
The cliché expression “use it or lose it” is actually true for the brain. We are born with more neurons in our brains than we need. At around the age of 5 – 8 years, the formation of new neuron connections begins to slow down, and some unused links break down through a process known as synaptic pruning. As the brain matures, it naturally trims down the neuron connections it deems unnecessary or dormant. This is the reason kids are able to learn new skills and languages so much faster than adults.
Music stimulates multiple parts of the brain because it takes a lot of computation to register and interpret all the various music components, such as melody, rhythm, sound, expressions, and structure. Exercising the brain like this strengthens the neural networks and decelerates synaptic pruning in the brain regions excited by music.
Music really does bring back memories in the same way a smell or fragrance does. A song can remind you of your childhood, past experiences, loved ones, family, or friends. Besides triggering nostalgia, music also actively boosts the brain’s working memory. Various studies show that merely listening to music helps improve cognitive functions such as fluency, recognition, and short-term memory, especially in older adults and those who have dementia.
However, music’s effect on cognitive performance is not one-size-fits-all. In a recent study, researchers found that listening to music affected task performance in different and contradicting ways, depending on the individual.
Although studies are inconclusive on how music boosts cognition and memory, the general consensus is that music enhances these brain functions, at least in most people.
Music is a proven therapeutic agent. In a 2014 study, relaxing, pleasant music was found to reduce pain and encourage functional mobility in fibromyalgia patients. Researchers believed the pain relief resulted from a music-triggered release of opioids – the body’s natural pain relief chemicals.
Listening to music also triggers dopamine release – the feel-good neurotransmitter – and lowers cortisol levels – a hormone released in response to stressful stimuli. Increased release of dopamine and suppressed cortisol levels alleviates stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms and puts the listener in a jovial or cheerful mood.
Music therapy taps into the healing power of music to treat some mental illnesses and emotional and behavioral disorders. It also helps trauma and surgery patients manage and cope with physical pain. This technique is useful in treating OCD, PTSD, insomnia, autism, schizophrenia, and even some forms of addictions. A music therapy program may involve composing, playing musical instruments, dancing, singing, and just listening to music.
Music exerts a powerful influence on your brain, not just your ears. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes when you consciously or subconsciously listen to your favorite tunes. Music exercises the brain and provokes strong emotions that help us find meaning in ourselves during existential crises. You can feel the pain, stress, and anxiety leave your system as your mind taps to the explosion of rhythm. And you may not feel or even know it, but music also enhances your essential brain functions.
The next time you lose yourself in a musical wonderland, take a moment to appreciate just how much your brain and whole being craves that musical experience and the mental and emotional wellness benefits that music presents.