When fed with music, the entire brain-sphere is aglow, showing that the power of music influences every part of the organ. Research confirms that the brain almost dances to the tune, be it to bust stress, improve immunity, or induce pleasure.
Scientists are confirming what many of us have suspected for years; music has powerful effects on the brain. Long before these beliefs were corroborated by scientific experiments with proper methods and proper controls, surgeons used music to enhance concentration, armies to coordinate movements and increase cooperation, workers to improve attention and vigilance, and athletes to increase stamina and motivation.
While anecdotes and pseudoscience have flourished for decades, over the past five years, strong evidence has been mounting for the beneficial effects of music in four domains: reward, motivation, and pleasure; stress and arousal; immune system functions; and social affiliation. Preliminary results suggest the influence of music on health is mediated by changes in the chemical systems in the brain that parallel these four domains. Brain imaging studies have found that listening to music increases activity in the reward and pleasure areas of the brain, which are rich with dopamine receptors. (Dopamine is a hormone triggered when we approach and anticipate a reward. It is associated with euphoria, bliss, and a surge of energy so we can realise that reward — hence its nickname “the feel-good hormone”.)
One small study investigating effects of music on dopamine found a nine per cent increase in brain dopamine levels when people listened to music that gave them chills. Music listening also reportedly lowers requirements for opiate drugs in postoperative pain, suggesting music may stimulate the release of the brain’s own internal opioids-substances created inside the body like the endorphins responsible for the “natural high” that can be produced by exercise.
Music’s ability to alter pain thresholds and decrease the need for drugs is not the only reason people turn to it before and after surgery. Music has been used effectively to reduce stress in patients pre- and post-surgery.
Listening to “relaxing music” (generally considered to have slow tempo, low pitch, and no lyrics) reduces stress and anxiety by lowering the stress hormone, cortisol. Music appears to regulate stress, arousal, and emotions by modulating brainstem-mediated measures, such as heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, skin conductance and muscle tension.
Musical interventions have been used to help with the psychological aspects of illness and to improve the quality of life in patients with cancer, dementia, chronic pain, and depression. We’ve seen in populations with Alzheimer’s disease that musical memories outlast other memories and familiar music can lead to decreases in depression, anxiety, and agitation, while improving brain function and quality of life.
Given that music enhances mood and reduces stress, it stands to reason that it may also improve immune function. We’ve seen indications that music can alter the brain chemicals associated with the production of cytokines, immunoglobulin A and other components of a healthy immune system.
Even more than listening to music, learning to play an instrument can confer some advantages in other areas. Playing an instrument can release positive hormones in the brain to reduce stress, increase productivity and create social bonding to combat loneliness in the digital age.
Playing music with other people produces the chemical oxytocin, which promotes trust and social bonding and makes you feel better.
Music can lead to increases in pro-social behaviours-empathy, kindness, generosity, helpfulness and cooperation.
The physical and mental benefits of playing an instrument extend to all types of players — from beginners to professional artists. And it’s never too early — or too late — to start. Learning an instrument can help develop your brain when you are a kid; playing an instrument as a senior can help you retrain and remap neural circuits that are inclined to atrophy, which helps you stay mentally young.
Playing music seems to provide attentional training and on the social side, kids who play in musical groups in school tend to be better socialised. If you’re playing an instrument in a little ensemble, you have to coordinate your actions with others. You have to listen to what they’re doing in order to make your part fit. And so, you have to step outside yourself and become a little bit more empathetic. In that respect, it’s kind of like team sports that may impart the same advantages as opposed to passive listening, which doesn’t appear to offer those advantages.
So, what is the best kind of music for healthy brains and healthy lives?
Well, that depends. The average person hears five hours of music a day and many people instinctively reach for a certain kind of music to suit certain occasions. If you’re having a party, you play one kind of music; if you’re relaxing after a long day at the office, you play another kind of music. The kind of music you play when you’re trying to wake up in the morning is different from the kind you play when you’re trying to go to sleep at night. Lyrics can be distracting when learning or processing new information, but may be helpful when completing mundane or repetitive tasks. Not everybody does this, but a large number of people report in surveys that they programme music to suit a desired mood outcome.
They’re intuitively using music for mood regulation based on personal preferences and they’re on the right track.
Overall, it is best to listen to and play music that you like. There is no one piece of music that will do the same thing for everyone, just as there is no single “music centre” in the brain.
Music activates nearly every region of brain we’ve mapped so far, hinting at its universality and power to affect us. Much work remains to be done, and is under way at empirical musicology and music neuroscience laboratories around the world.
(Lindsay Fleming, MA, is a researcher at McGill University; Dr Daniel J. Levitin is Professor Emeritus at McGill University and author of This Is Your Brain on Music)...