9 Weird and Wonderful Ways Music Affects the Brain

how music affects the brain

Does everybody remember the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind? The flick where aliens come to our planet and start communicating with us by playing a 5-note musical phrase that mutated almost immediately into an overplayed disco hit?

Yes, the movie was fun, but it made a valid point. Music is universal among humans. Every culture on the planet has enjoyed music, far back into our history. Musical instruments have been found that appear to be 35,000 years old. People seem to be hard-wired to love music, and music certainly has an effect on our cerebral wiring.

Here are 9 ways how music influences our brains:

1 Music Makes the Mood. You’ve felt this; everyone has. There you are, minding your own business, and along comes some upstart piece of music that changes your mood. This effect has been famous throughout history, but researchers are still getting grants to study it.

“Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast”, wrote William Congreve in 1697, just so everyone could remember it wrong for centuries to come. But the sentiment holds, in either version; music has been changing our moods reliably since we started making it.

2 Music Manages Memory. Music is being used to help Alzheimer’s patients re-connect with the world around them, because it makes their memories accessible to them.

Dan Cohen is leading the research in this, and a movie about his work, Alive Inside, won an award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Humming a few bars of music may not help you remember where you left the car keys, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.

3 Music Helps Concentration. Using background music in the classroom to help students concentrate has been studied since the 1960s. It’s a cornerstone of the Accelerated Learning program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

Would a pole dancer get as much attention from her audience without the music accompanying her performance? It’s an idea that really deserves more research than it’s getting!

4 Music Modifies Musicians. Learning to make music changes the brains of musicians. (Yes, even the drummers.) Their brains are more symmetrical, and the parts of the brain that control auditory processing, spatial coordination, and motor control are larger.

They also have a larger corpus callosum, the section that lets the left brain communicate with the right brain. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if only the left and right wing politicians could do that, too?

5 Strauss Slaughters Stress. Daniel J. Levitin, PhD, who studies the neuroscience of music, published a study that showed that music was better than prescription medications at relieving anxiety before surgery.

It seems that listening to music reduces the level of cortisol in our brains. Cortisol is a hormone that causes us to feel stress. Unfortunately, there is no health insurance program that covers iTunes purchases at this time.

6 Music Motivates. Listening to music increases the level of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s associated with the brain’s pleasure and reward centers.

Dopamine helps you see the rewards that you’ll get from achieving goals, and encourages you to work toward those goals. It may help to think of dopamine as being the carrot hanging from a stick ahead of us, getting us moving. Listening to music makes the carrot bigger and juicier-looking. If carrots don’t do it for you, feel free to imagine it as a bottle of your favorite beer.

7 Concerts Create Closeness. Oxytocin is another brain chemical, a neuropeptide, that is associated with interpersonal bonding. Higher levels of it are produced in our brains during sexual contact, breastfeeding, and listening to music.

In one study, singing for 30 minutes was shown to significantly raise Oxytocin levels in people, whether they enjoyed singing or not, no matter how good they were at it. This could be part of the explanation for the enduring popularity of karaoke bars.

8 Music Enhances Empathy. Researchers hooked subjects up to a fMRI machine to see what their brains were doing, and played a piece of music for them. When they were told that the music was composed by a human, the circuits associated with understanding people got busy. When they were told that a computer had composed the same piece of music, those circuits lazed about, not doing anything special.

In another study, schoolkids were assigned to play games for an hour per week. Some kids played musical games, while others played storytelling games, and a control group didn’t get to play any games. At the end of the school year, the group that played musical games had the highest increase in empathy of all of the groups. If you feel sad for the no-games group, that’s empathy.

9 Music Junkies Are Really Junkies. Listening to music also raises the endorphin levels in our brains. Robin Dunbar of Oxford has run studies on performing and listening to music and pain tolerance. He has found that performing is more effective, but both groups produced more endorphins.

The word endorphins is a contraction of endogenous opioid, and they are known to produce the same effects in people as morphine. Efforts to list them as a Schedule 1 drug have been unsuccessful so far.


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