As we rush about our day, we might forget the power that music has on our lives and health.
How the brain processes music
Music makes its way through the ear canal as sound waves, which reach the eardrum and vibrate as sound, before travelling through the inner ear to the cochlea. The sense organ that is shaped in a small spiral. From here, the vibrations (sound) are sent as nerve impulses to the brain.
Within the brain, we have an auditory cortex where sound and pitch is perceived and understood. Information is then sent to different parts of your brain, such as the memory centers, emotional centers, and pleasure centers (our reward system).
What’s interesting is your brain rhythms can even synchronize with musical rhythms.
Effect of Music on Intelligence
This is largely because musicians are required to consistently activate different networks throughout the brain, as they begin to break down aspects like pitch and tone. They then have to store that information so they know how to play the guitar or violin in the same chords next time they practice.
Playing a musical instrument in our early developmental years is an especially effective way for children to advance their motor skills, memory, focus, non-verbal skills and cognitive function.
Music boosts your immune system
The positive effect that music has on our lives goes as far as boosting our immune system by promoting feelings of well being.
The way the brain interprets the thousands of thoughts in a day, particularly the more negative ones, has a huge impact on our ability to stay happy, healthy, and free of disease.
Music has a great ability to decrease cortisol levels, which is important given studies have shown stress mediators such as cortisol have the ability to pass through the blood-brain barrier and have a negative effect on the immune system and the way it responds to disease.
Music has also been used in therapy for those recovering from cancer as it has been shown to improve several immune functions in the body, therefore increasing the chances of battling their cancer.
Studies show a significant improvement in reducing depression, anxiety and the expression of emotions when listening to music. The main reasoning for this is said to be that music has a direct connection to pleasure and therefore releases dopamine (the feel good hormone).
You might notice that when you are listening to your favorite song with upbeat lyrics, your feelings of worry reduce and problems seem to melt away as you find yourself entirely lost in the melody, if even for a few minutes.
Perhaps you’ve found that when your mood is low, you tend to listen to sad songs as you connect more deeply with them, than trying to force yourself to listen to a fast, upbeat track. While you may not be thinking about it at the time of listening, deep down your mind is reminding you that we all feel the many spectrums of human emotion, and you’re not alone in those feelings.
In a way, this connection can help you spring back into your step more quickly, as the song can act as a validation for the emotions you’re going through and remind you that it’s just a part of being human.
Just as hearing a song from your past can take you back to that time, music has been found to significantly enhance memory function. Much like when you listen to a slow, emotional song when you are feeling down, by hearing that same song ten years later, you are taken back to that challenging time in your life. While you may not remember the exact event that occurred and had you feeling so low in the first place, the song helps you to remember so many other smaller details around that time. This is where feelings of gratitude can be aroused, as you reflect just how far you have come since that time, and how enjoyable your life currently is.
Music can evoke strong feelings of nostalgia that remind you of the best moments in your life such as your wedding song. As music triggers particular emotions, it has been found that the higher levels of arousal or positive emotion act as the memory enhancer. You could therefore view music as being a bridge to remembering events, given it has the power to stir so many emotions within you.
The powerful effect of music on memory is becoming a popular area of study, particularly in elderly patients with alzheimers or dementia. Music therapy is currently being used in nursing homes, due to its strong effect on improving memory and potential to even reduce cognitive decline.
If you could picture an 85 year old man at a nursing home participating in dance class, smiling away like a child as he carelessly swings his hips to his favorite songs from his teenage years. Suddenly a song comes on that takes him right back to the first date he had with his late wife. The lyrics help him to recall the very perfume she wore, the way her hair sat on her petite shoulders and the love that he had (and still has) for her. Without hearing that song, his declining memory would not have been able to take him back to such a joyous moment. This is the power that music has on the human brain!
In studies, it has been found that listening to music has a significant positive benefit on levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and is an effective distraction technique prior to those undergoing minor or major surgery.
Of course, the music is often used as a distraction throughout our busy days too and has the ability to reduce anxiety levels and feelings of sadness.
Music has a very calming effect on the fight or flight system, allowing your heart rate to slow down, your thoughts to finally unwind, and your central nervous system to come back into balance.
Across the ages, particularly in the East, calming or chanting music has been used in meditation to alter emotional states, focus on deep breathing and turn all mind chatter off. It has become a popular tool in the West to cope with modern day life and unwind from the fast paced nature of our everyday lifestyles.
Music truly does hold great power in many areas of our lives and is proving to be a valuable tool in the management of mental and physical health through its ability to relax, uplift, and inspire. It’s quite exciting to learn about music’s role in treating and healing disease as an alternative to potent medications.
Music is a universal language
Regardless of where you live in the world, music has the ability to reach you at many levels, even when sung in another language. While you may not understand the lyrics, there are many parts of a song you can still deeply connect with. A tune, a melody, the pitch and rhythm of the singer’s voice, etc