How music affects the brain
Music affects the brain in numerous positive ways. From the healing, transcendental potential of kirtan to the depression-alleviating effects of beating a drum.
In yogic teachings, it is said that sound is the first manifestation of spirit. As such a powerful and primal force, sound greatly influences everything it comes into contact with. Whether we recognize this truth or not, the ripple effect of sound permeates every part of our being and in doing so, it shifts our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. It’s why we are so inherently drawn, whether consciously or unconsciously, to sound – or more specifically, to music. From boosting brain cognition to enhancing creativity, music influences us profoundly, and it all begins in the brain.
Neuromusicology is the study of the effects that music has on the brain. It’s a newly emergent field that is offering incredible insights into how sound and music influences the way we think, feel, and subsequently act. However, long before the scientific era emerged, the profound effects of music had been deeply explored by yogis. Music interacts with our energy body, each note corresponding to a specific nadi (or energy channel) in the physical body. When a particular note moves through the correlated channel, it sends a vibration that clears stagnation and awakens dormant energy. As we reharmonize our energy field this way, we move closer towards a state of inner peace and contentment.
Kirtan is a beautiful example of how music can quiet the mind and lift the soul. A practice stemming from the tradition of bhakti yoga, kirtan is a devotional, enlivening practice. Through chanting or singing during kirtan, the nervous system settles and the heart space begins to open. Those who practice kirtan often experience a deep sense of inner clarity and even transcendence. It is an incredible display of the transformative power of music.
But moving back to this newly emergent body of research, we might wonder: what does science say about how music affects the brain? Since the brain is an organ responsible for countless functions and all of our feelings, every part of our being is potentially influenced by music.
There are numerous ways we can define a healthy brain. Indications as to how well the brain is functioning include cognitive flexibility, concentration, memory, and auditory skills, among countless other markers. When it comes to the effects of music on the brain, research has considered all of these markers and more.
Significant research conducted in the field of neuromusicology has centered around those who are around music all the time – musicians. While many studies might raise the question, “which came first: the chicken or the egg?”, it is clear that there are substantial differences between the brains of musicians and non-musicians. One body of research found that musicians have a larger corpus callosum, which is the strip of tissue connecting the left and right sides of the brain. This might indicate that the two brain hemispheres of musicians are better able to communicate with one another than in non-musicians.
Music has also been found to play a key role in brain development amongst musicians. Instrumental training is believed to increase gray matter in certain parts of the brain. Because of this, musicians often experience increased cognitive functioning in the realms of auditory processing, learning, and memory.
Amongst the aging population, music has been found to be of benefit as well. Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center assessed cognition of 70 healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 83. Those who had greater amounts of musical study behind them did better on cognitive tests than those with less musical experience. Cognitive flexibility (the brain’s ability to shift alongside newly discovered information) was also greater in those with a high degree of musical experience. Even when music had not been played for some time, the beneficial effects of one’s musical past were still observed in these participants.
Music and emotions
Our emotional body is complex, and while commonly associated with the heart, much of our emotions stem from the brain. Since emotions are not a rational experience, words often fail to describe them – especially when we’re young. A study by the Journal of Music Therapy looked into how music might be used as a way for autistic children to understand and communicate their emotions. The results showed that these children were better able to identify and communicate emotions they were experiencing by pointing to different songs played out to them. In other words, music helped to bridge the divide between their emotions and their ability to express themselves.
Musical therapy has also been studied for its ability to help improve mood and alleviate depression. The results showed that much like the study surrounding children, music therapy helped individuals to better express themselves and their feelings, even if not verbally. The group learned how to improvise playing instruments, such as West African djembe drums and a mallet instrument. Mood and overall functioning of those with depression improved.
Music and Stress
Numerous studies have looked into the role that music plays in managing our stress levels. A meta-analysis of 400 studies found that music does, in fact, reduce our stress levels and can be more effective than prescription drugs when it comes to reducing pre-surgery anxiety. Another study found that in a trial with 42 pediatric emergency room patients, children who listened to relaxing music while having an IV inserted experienced less pain in comparison to those who did not listen to the relaxing music.
One of the predominant mechanisms for how music can reduce stress levels so profoundly is through its effect on cortisol, commonly known as our ‘stress hormone.’ When we are under stress, whether acute or chronic, the body secretes cortisol to help us manage the threat, whether real or perceived. Music reduces the amount of cortisol in our bodies, thereby helping us to feel more at peace within the present moment.
Music and creativity
When it comes to the realm of creativity, music is a promoter. One study explored the effect of music on creative cognition and found that those who listened to ‘happy music’ were more creative when completing a particular task than those who completed the same task in silence.
We’re also beginning to understand the effect that various types of music have on brain waves and how this impacts us. When we are in an alpha or theta state (common when we are meditating or daydreaming, respectively), we are better able to engage our creative mind. Listening to music that contains these frequencies might then help us to tap into our creative potential.
Does Genre Matter?
Assuming we’re listening to music that suits our preferences, many of music’s benefits are likely to be experienced. Researchers in the UK and Finland have even found that listening to sad music can improve mood, which is perhaps the opposite of what we might expect. Regardless of what we are listening to, if we are listening to music we connect with on a deep level, it is bound to benefit us on some level.
With that said, there certainly are genres of music associated with specific effects. For instance, classical music enhances dopamine secretion, learning, and memory, whereas pop and rock music improve physical performance and endurance. Upbeat music can prep the brain for learning and jazz music soothes the body. Depending on the specific benefits we’re after, there might just be a style of music for it.
Music on Wellbeing
No matter which way we approach it, music affects the brain in numerous positive ways. From the healing, transcendental potential of kirtan to the depression-alleviating effects of beating a drum, there is a way of finding wholeness through engaging with and embracing the sounds around us. The best way to understand how music affects us is to tune into the body. How does a particular sound, note, or song make us feel? If we feel something positive rising within us, we know we’ve landed on the right note.