Why does some music reduce us to tears while other pieces make us get up and dance? Music is so much a part our everyday lives that it seems peculiar to stop and question exactly how and why it is so important to us in so many ways. Knowing what music does for us can give us a sharper sense of which genres we might be in particular need of and when.
Music should, to quote Peter Gabriel, provide us with “an emotional toolbox,” to which we can turn at different moments of our lives. Whether releasing sadness, sending shivers down our spines, or inspiring us to spontaneously jam the air guitar, the songs in our ‘emotional toolbox’ can transform our daily lives.
Military bands use music to build confidence and courage. Sporting events provide music to rouse enthusiasm. Schoolchildren use music to memorize their ABCs. Shopping malls play music to entice consumers and keep them in the store. Dentists play music to help calm nervous patients.
The best musicians supply our emotional toolboxes with what we most need to endure our day-to-day journey, creating a soundtrack to your own personal story – the story of your life.
Music Makes You Happier
A neuroscientist at McGill University, Valorie Salimpoor, conducted an experiment that involved injecting test subjects with a radioactive substance that binds to dopamine receptors. He then had them listen to their favourite music.
Results of the PET scan showed that large amounts of dopamine, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter, was released, causing participants to feel happiness, excitement, and joy.
The study offers a biological explanation for why music has been so integrated with major emotional events and cultures for hundreds of years.
In a previous experiment, Salimpoor linked music-induced pleasure with changes in heart rate, pulse, breathing rate and other measurements resulting in subjects experiencing shivers or chills.
Music Reduces Depression
Similar to music giving you a biological high, it can also reduce depression. A study by Hans Joachim Trappe in Germany demonstrated that soothing sounds, such as classical music or meditative sounds, can cause the release of serotonin, a natural antidepressant.
Scientists at the Tokyo University of the Arts and the RIKEN Brain Science Institute have also revealed that listening to melancholy music evokes feelings of romance that encourages positive emotion.
Ai Kawakami, who headed up the study, said that sadness experienced through art is beneficial to the listener and can help people deal with negative emotions.
Music Makes You Healthier
The emotional benefit of feeling happier and less depressed might be obvious, you feel better about yourself, but feeling happier and less depressed also has health benefits.
The release of endorphins in the brain improves vascular health because feeling happier results in increased blood flow and improved blood vessel function, which strengthens the heart. Let music be your medicine.
Music Helps Reduce Stress
It is estimated that stress causes 60 percent of all of our illnesses. The level of stress hormones in your body is measured by cortisol. Listening to music you enjoy boosts antibodies that not only decreases cortisol but also lowers your blood pressure, making it a powerful stress management tool.
Studies show that people who actively participate in making music by playing an instrument or singing have stronger immune systems than passive listeners.
Music Helps You Relax
Anything that helps to decrease stress, is likely going to help you relax. Researchers (where would we be without them?) have found that listening to soothing music prior to surgery relaxed patients more effectively than orally administering Midazolam, a medication used to help pre-op patients feel drowsy.
It is believed that when you sing along, nod your head, tap your foot – whatever your bag is – while listening to the music you enjoy, this is as effective as a massage, cheaper than paying for a massage too.
Music Helps You Sleep
One of the most disruptive elements of sleep is a fast heart rate caused by anxiety or stress. Therefore, it stands to reason that anything that helps you to relax is also going to help lull you into la la land.
Slow music alters brainwave speeds inducing a meditative or hypnotic state. This rhythmic stimulus can also have a therapeutic effect by easing symptoms of migraines, PMS, and behavioural issues.
Studies have shown that people who listen to classical music before going to bed sleep significantly better than those who don’t. What’s more, by treating insomnia naturally, music is a much safer alternative to sleeping-inducing medication.
Music Helps You Recover
Cardiac surgery patients at Massachusetts General Hospital have reported that music helped them manage their stress, slowed their heart rate and eased their physical pain. While cancer patients who worked with a music therapist at Drexel University said that they experienced reduced anxiety and improved moods. The same University also found that cancer patients experienced reduced pain from listening to music.
There are many more studies that that showed similar results but I’ll save you the exhaustion of listing them all individually. Let it be said that there is indisputable evidence that a sonic diet has significant recovery powers. Furthermore, with brain-imaging techniques such as MRIs, music is increasingly being used in neurologic therapy to aid the recovery of people who have suffered brain-related injuries.
Music Helps Your Memory
People who have suffered from strokes or who have dementia experience problems with cognitive processes related to attention and memory span. Research at the University of Helsinki showed that patients who regularly listened to music had a 60 percent improvement rate in memory and had a significantly improved recovery of cognitive function.
It is believed that suppressed memories of favourite songs can trigger dementia sufferers to converse and socialise as they would normally have done before they were diagnosed. Because music affects so many areas of the brain, it stimulates pathways that might still be healthy causing a “reawakening” of sorts.
One such reawakening occurred when the nonprofit organisation, Music & Memory, setup an iPod programme for a patient in his nursing home called Henry. Henry had barely spoken for a decade, but when his caregivers played some of the dearest songs from his youth, he happily began to sing along to the lyrics and reminisced about his life.
Music & Group have reported that Henry’s experience is not unique and that many of the people they help become happier and more social once playlists have been tailored for them. Another study in the journal Neuropsychology also suggested that music lessons may help keep the brain healthy as people grow older.
Music Enhances Performance
Research has shown that people who listen to motivational music with a fast tempo run faster as well as cycling harder and further than when also tested not listening to anything.
Listening to motivational music has also shown to help people perform better in high-pressure situations. One study found that basketball players performed significantly better when they listened to upbeat music before a game. Michael Phelps is rarely seen before a swim without his Beats wrapped around his head.
The release of endorphins in the brain that I addressed earlier quells anxiety and pumps us up mentally which leads to improved performance. Music can also help regulate rhythm helping us to run or lift-weights in time with the beat. Rhythm aids the use of energy more efficiently, ensuring that we do not become exhausted too quickly.
Music Increases Intelligence
Several studies have shown that music education at an early age stimulates the child’s brain in a number of ways that help to improve verbal skills, communication skills, and visual skills.
One such study at York University looked at four to six-year-olds who were given one month’s musical training in rhythm, pitch, melody, and voice. The results found that 90 percent of the children had a significant increase in verbal intelligence. Taking music lessons also predicts higher academic performance and IQ in young children.
Music Helps You Find Yourself
This particular area is broad enough to warrant its own separate article so I won’t expand too much here, save to say that we find our identity through music.
The music that strikes a chord with us and that we choose to listen to shapes who we are, gives us a sense of ourselves and the world around us. It has an impression on our political views, our tastes, our fashion choices, on the demographics that we socialise with.
The music from our youth stays with us until our dying day. It is the ultimate prompt for nostalgia. But our relationship with music deepens and matures as we ourselves mature. We listen to, and adapt to, new genres and artists and styles throughout our lives.
The more we recognise the impact that music has on us, the more value it as an essential part of who we are.
“Without music, life would be a mistake” – Friedrich Nietzsche