Avery Benbow & Lizzie Ead
In light of the upcoming Music Festival, two curious students decided to explore the science behind how music affects the brain. There is a lot of information out there about music that is easily accessed on the internet or through word of mouth, however sometimes it’s hard to tell what actually has scientific premise. To our delight, we found lots of research about the positive and negative effects of music on the brain, and thus, have written an informative article. The aim of this piece is to explore this topic further, and hopefully learn something along the way!
Did you know that music, along with painting, poetry, literature and architecture, was an Olympic event from 1912 until 1948? Music is essentially, like all noise, sound waves that enter the ear, strike the eardrum, and cause vibrations that are converted into electrical signals, which travel to the brainstem through sensory nerves. They then travel to different parts of the brain, like the temporal lobe, cerebellum, amygdala, hippocampus, and other parts of the brain’s reward system. The whole concept of music, and the human species’ reaction to it, is a key difference between us and other animals, as we create and change behaviour according to music, like with dancing.
It is commonly understood that listening to music has many positive impacts on the body and brain, such as reducing anxiety, blood pressure, and pain as well as improving sleep quality, mood, and memory. However, what hormones cause music to do this? Music increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, a chemical produced by the hypothalamus, that controls the brain's reward and pleasure centre. A spike in dopamine levels also motivates you to repeat this activity, as well as enhances memory concentration. Another hormone involved when listening to music is the endorphin, which reduces pain and stress in the body. Endorphins, produced by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, create an overall positive feeling of wellbeing in the body and a sense of calm. A study into the levels of cortisol (anxiety hormone) before surgery with patients taking either anti-anxiety medication or listening to music showed that patients listening to music reported lower levels of stress and had lower cortisol levels then the other patients, who were on medication. Additionally, listening to or playing music releases what is known as the trust or moral molecule, oxytocin, which has been known to make music-lovers more generous and trusting in their actions. Different genres of music also release different hormones, for example, classical music enhances memory, learning, synaptic function (transmission of a message between two cells) and increases the release of dopamine. However, heavy metal gives us feelings of personal identity and encourages community development. Some others include jazz, which can soothe the body; rap, which gives us better motivation, motor related function, and improves the processing of information. And finally, pop or rock, which can distract us while working, but also enhances stamina and our strength and physical ability.
We often hear that playing music is good for the brain and will make us smarter, but what does that mean? Well, training in or playing music is very beneficial neurologically, because over time, it changes the structure of the brain by, in different areas, increasing the connections between the neurons (brain cells). The brains of children who begin playing music at a young age are better connected and more elastic, because before the age of 8 our brains have more neurons than we need. This makes it easier to pick up new skills and establish neural pathways, which allow us to access information (is anyone else getting Year 8 Integrated vibes?). Additionally, anyone who plays music, on average, finds learning different things easier and is happier more often. The positives on the brain are most evident in professional musicians, who usually, according to studies, have bigger, healthier, more connected and symmetrical brains then people of other occupations.
However, what about listening to music? What does that do for our brains, neurologically? Well, many studies have shown that just engaging with music can evoke memories, cause emotions, reduce seizures and repair brain damage. It also holds the ability to increase communication skills, change the perception of time, boost the immune system and give us more physical strength. Familiar tunes of music are used to aid the recovery process or increase the quality of life for people suffering from dementia, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, etc., and for many other neurological conditions. In regards to Alzheimer’s disease, songs can be played that are encoded into patients’ long term memory, which can cause them to move and dance along, sing and smile, which is incredible for patients with severe cases of this disease, which over time causes declines in physical and mental abilities. In relation to Parkinson’s disease, music can get patients moving by stimulating their brain cells. Psychiatry resident and musician, Nikki Haddad, recalls playing for sedated patients in assisted living quarters, who are unable to communicate, and are lying, eyes closed on their beds, saying, “when you play a song that they recognize from their youth, their eyes light up. They’re sitting up, and they’re smiling.” This shows the power music can have. The type of music doesn’t matter, as no one type is best for us, as it depends on the activity, as discussed above, but in regard to neurological conditions, recent studies have shown that the brain responds best to one’s personal preference, as Alzheimer's patients react best to music that they like or music from their youth.
Whilst there are many positive impacts of listening to music, this dopamine-producing activity has its downfalls. Whilst the release of dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin is a positive outcome, due to the brain’s constant craving for pleasure, music can become addictive. Research has shown that music can be as addictive as alcohol, fast food and drugs. This creates a problem as people may become reliant on music as their source of reward, and when this expectation is not met, this can trigger mental health issues or even mental illnesses. Furthermore, a 2015 study found that listening to sorrowful or sad music increases the chance of someone getting stuck in a negative thinking pattern. One study from Finland found that music can bolster negative emotions—like anger, aggression or sadness—much the same way it can counteract these feelings. Then, relating back to the first point, people rely on this music to help them cope, and this leads to a never-ending cycle. Lastly, whilst music may benefit your brain with concentration and focus, certain types of music can actually have the opposite effect. Research leads us to believe that fast, upbeat, loud, (often pop or rock) music can distract and side-track the brain whilst doing certain tasks, such as studying. This causes inefficiency and unproductivity, which is a negative impact of music on the brain.
As briefly mentioned before, listening to harmful kinds of music can leave the brain and body negatively impacted and influenced. A quote from Aristotle explains that “If one listens to the wrong kind of music he will become the wrong kind of person…”. Especially as a young, impressionable person, repeated exposure to damaging words and toxic behaviour is extremely dangerous as this increases the chance that this message will spread and become normalised. The more something is repeated through music in the brain, such as a negative stereotype or harmful idea, the more it is reinforced and remembered. In addition, the unrealistic portrayal of people and/or relationships in music genres such as rap can lead to toxic or abusive relationships, further demonstrating that music has negative side effects on the brain.
In conclusion, there are always two sides to an argument, and whether music affects the brain positively or negatively is subjective. We have stated the facts and evidence ultimately for you to form your own opinion! Music is quite a polarising subject, and can often be warped to fit different opinions. Overall we hope we have educated you further on this topic of the science behind how music affects the brain and you have learnt something!
We found a lot of information on this topic, but couldn’t include everything, so if you are interested in exploring further, check out these resources to learn more!