How Music Affects Your Brain
Music can be difficult thing to define because there are so many ways to describe and interpret exactly what it means. When I was at school I was taught that music is ‘an organised sound intended to be listened to’ and so far I haven’t been able to come up with anything better.
But music is of course far more than this, it can be a way of life for many people, it can bring overwhelming joy or sadness and is used everywhere – in shops to enhance customer’s mood, tv programmes and films to evoke a feeling or as background music, parties to dance or sing along to, even a police siren is music! Music brightens up an atmosphere, can make you smile or cry and can have a direct impact on your mood.
So what happens in our brain when we listen to music?
Listening to music triggers the brain into releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine which helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure areas and is the body’s motivation system. Higher dopamine levels within the body improves concentration, enhances memory and boosts your mood.
In more depth your brain is hard-wired to connect music with long term memory. This is certainly the case with me because I can still remember words to all my favourite songs from when I was a teenager. When hearing familiar music, specific regions of the brain become activated which link memories and emotions. Research has shown memory tests on people with Alzheimers or dementia were improved when they listened to music because it can tap deeply into their emotional recall. A song or tune from your childhood can bring back memories because you associate it with something or someone in your life and this helps to remind you of that person or thing.
Listening to your favourite music also has the benefit by lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It diminishes the feeling of anxiety and stress by lifting your mood, reducing your blood pressure and thereby boosting immunity. Relaxing music can also aid sleep quality by allowing you to feel calm, relaxed and comfortable. Listening to your favourite music can often calm chaotic brain activity so you can focus on the present moment.
Music is one of the few activities that stimulates the whole of the brain. Music is very much pattern based, such as simple song with verses and a recurring chorus, and the brain likes searching for patterns and problem solving. So the the journey through a piece of music can help with cognitive functions because music is structural and the brain enjoys the relationship between the notes and the way the music develops. Therefore music is activating the auditory areas in the brain by sound, the limbic area with emotions and motor areas by processing rhythm.
As a piano teacher I directly see how music can significantly improve motor and reasoning skills. Learning an instrument takes time, motivation and practise and the outcome is so worthwhile. Many adults I speak to wish they’d learnt an instrument (it’s never too late!) and that is usually just from the joy of being able to play. Playing an instrument not only helps with fine motor skills, it also improves higher brain functions that really can make you smarter. Music enhances reading and literacy skills, reasoning and mathematical abilities. Brain scans of professional musicians show more developed areas of the brain responsible for auditory processing and spatial coordination and also the band of fibres that connects the two sides of the brain to each other allowing communication. Playing with other musicians, or enjoying live music with others also helps to release oxytocin which increases our feelings of connectedness, trust and social bonding. Just look at the huge increase in popularity of music festivals for example showing how many people find music enjoyable.
Music can also speed healing by the secretion of endorphins which in addition to inducing feelings of pleasure also help relieve pain. It can act as a distraction from pain and suffering by diverting the mind and bringing about chemical changes in the body that speed up the healing process. There is a great deal of research into music as therapy helping with recovery of brain injuries, heart disease and even cancer and it can have a very positive effect on both physical and mental well-being of patients.
Music can also help us to exercise. We often see runners or people at the gym with headphones in, and class-based exercise is nearly always accompanied by music. Music helps to drown out the brain and body’s cries of fatigue because it competes for the brain’s attention and helps to override those signals of tiredness. Have you noticed you want to pedal faster on a bike when listening to music you enjoy?
Nietzsche said ‘without music, life would be a mistake’ and I can’t help by agree with him. Even ambient music has it’s place because it aids our creativity. Low levels of ambient music can get those creative juices flowing.
So what are you going to listen to on World Music Day this year to jazz up your mood?
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About the Author: Carmen Harrington is based in our Market Harborough clinic. She especially likes seeing clients suffering from stress and anxiety because the results are truly life changing and they can happen in as little as 6 weeks. Carmen is also a successful piano teacher.