Music And The Brain

Remember how on Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters there was that one episode about plants being subjected to silence, music, praise, and cursing? It not only turned out that plants growing to music performed better, plants growing to metal and rock music (as opposed to classical music) showed the best results. If that’s how peas react to music, just imagine how a complex mechanism like the human brain does! The first thing that comes to mind when speaking of the effect music has on us is, of course, our emotions. We probably never give it any thought, but when we’re listening to music, there are two kinds of emotions related to music: perceived and felt emotions. This explains, for example, how we can understand the emotions of a certain piece of music without actually feeling them, and find listening to sad music enjoyable, and not sad or depressing. We may perceive sad emotions without actually feeling them. As an IAMX song goes, “Just because I don’t feel, doesn’t mean that I don’t understand”. Great song, by the way. Let’s see how we feel listening to it:


One of the possible reactions to music can be chills — goosebumps and shivers on the neck, scalp, and spine. Research showed that over 50% of people get chills from listening to music. Ever wondered how this happens? Apparently, the music stimulates an ancient reward pathway inside our brains, which encourages dopamine to flood the part of the brain that is activated by addiction, motivation, and reward. A study showed that openness to experience was the strongest predictor of chills during music. Newer research also shows that getting chills can be a sign of higher emotional intelligence and a more active imagination. This experience is called frisson, a French term for ‘aesthetic chills’, some researchers even dubbed it a ‘skin orgasm’. We get ’skin orgasm‘ when we hear the combo of violin and guitar.


Music can also be used as a form of communication. Yes, we all made mixtapes for a girl we liked in high school, but there are by far more important things that can be communicated. A study conducted by the Journal of Music Therapy shows that songs could increase emotional understanding in autistic children. Different songs were used to portray different emotions, so later on children could identify emotions with the help of songs that represented them. Songs can not only be associated with emotions, but also with memories. Petr Janata at the University of California, Davis has found that there is a special part of the brain that bridges music and memories, whenever we experience memories triggered by a familiar song — like when you were dancing in the rain at a festival with your BFF knee deep in mud or a song that was playing in the background back when you first met your future spouse. The movie Alive Inside documented how thanks to music Alzheimer patients regained parts of memory. Several studies tested how our attention span depends on the music we hear. We don’t need to explain that listening to music while driving is distracting — ever notice how we turn down the volume when we need to concentrate more on where we’re going on an unfamiliar route? In one of the studies, drivers were tested while listening to their music of choice, safe music provided by researchers, and also to silence. As it turned out, drivers drove more aggressively and made more mistakes when listening to their music of choice. However, listening to ‘safe music’ proved to have a better effect on their driving than no music at all.


Listening to music is good, but playing music is even better. Playing a musical instrument, especially when starting at an early age, improves our fine motor skills. Not only this, it improves the vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning skills. Learning an instrument can help children better understand and analyze visual information — identifying relationships, similarities and differences between shapes and patterns. Oh, and not to mention, remembering all the lyrics, notes, and their combination will pump up your memory! One additional important thing — singing! It doesn’t matter how good of a singer you are, singing is not only good for our heart and breathing, but also for our brain! Singing can improve your speech function and articulation, help you learn a new language and improve pronunciation, as well as decrease stress, anxiety, and depression. Even better than just singing is singing together in a group!


The truth is that music has many wonderful effects on listeners, and today we’ve just scratched the surface of this long list. We only talked about the physical effects music has on our brain and body, but there are also a sociological, and a psychological angle to this matter that needs their own articles. As we see, different studies show that music is not only good for fun but also improves our emotional intelligence and perception, fine motor skills, jogs our long forgotten memories and helps our brain better retain new memories. Music helps us learn and communicate, feel and analyze. Music makes us better people.

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