When you think about your favorite songs, what emotions bubble to the surface? Maybe you start to feel nostalgic because the lyrics represent a happy memory in your life. Or, you might even start to feel emotional because the melodies remind you of one of your old friends from childhood. Regardless of the genre or artist, most of us can agree that listening to our favorite music elicits some kind of positive emotion. Lucky for us in modern times, the widespread nature of platform music streaming has made listening to music even easier for consumers, and more than 93% of the U.S. population listen to music — that’s more than 305 million people!
Now, a lot of people are aware that listening to music not only sounds good, but can also make them feel good. But why is that? What happens in your brain when you listen to a song? And how come some songs can make you remember the time and place you heard it for the first time? Why does a song that your mom played during your adolescence make you feel safe, and why does the song you first danced to at your wedding make you tear up? The real deal is that the guitar on your favorite song doesn’t just sound amazing, but it may also be beneficial to your mental health. In this blog, we will explore the connection between music and the brain, and how music can play a larger role in our mental health than we may even be aware of.
The Science Behind Music in Your Brain
It cannot be denied, we love our music here in the U.S. According to research done in a 2014 study, 75% of Americans claim that they actively choose to listen to music, while only 73% of people reported that they actively choose to watch TV. In addition, over half of young adults in the U.S. aged 18-29 years old report streaming music every single day. From driving to work, to exercising, to playing instruments, doing homework, or completing chores, most of us prefer to accomplish our tasks while listening to something in the background. What is the science behind this? Well, research has demonstrated that music can stimulate many different parts of the brain, with one of its most positive effects being its ability to regulate brain chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, and cortisol. Dopamine is in charge of releasing feelings of pleasure, oxytocin releases feelings of trust and love, and cortisol is a stress hormone.
Additionally, studies have shown that music can have positive effects on anxiety, depression, and pain. A 2019 study revealed significantly lowered levels of anxiety in college students when they listened to classical music every day for two months straight. Also, a 2016 study was able to demonstrate that music can lower anxiety in those who have a fear of heights. In this study, participants were put into a simulation that made them ride up a few floors in an elevator. One elevator had music playing in it and the other did not. Results showed that those who rode in the elevator with music had a much shorter recovery rate from the stress of the experience versus those who did not. Music has the ability to modulate certain areas in the brain that are involved with emotional processes, and can lower feelings of subjective worry, nervousness, or restlessness. It can do this by influencing neurons to release neurotransmitters called endorphins. Many of us know endorphins to be a ‘feel-good’ hormone that we usually associate with things like exercise. Who knew listening to music could make you feel the same way as running a mile might?
What’s even cooler is that individuals don’t have to listen to inherently ‘happy’ or super upbeat, cheery music to get all of the great benefits music has to offer. Research shows that listening to objectively melancholy or sad music can still elicit feelings of pleasantness in listeners. This supports the idea that music, in any form or mold, can lessen feelings of pain, sadness, and stress. Music has a unique ability to take us out of our own problems or mental states for a few minutes or hours. Sometimes, the lyrics help us express how we are feeling without having to come up with the words ourselves. Other times, music can feel like a safe place or escape for us when we want to avoid our own struggles or unwind from the world around us.
How does music affect your…
Within the brain, the amygdala functions as an individual’s fight-or-flight response. It is an area that processes fearful, threatening stimuli, and controls our emotions. When individuals listen to music they particularly like, the amygdala is activated and creates stronger connections with other brain areas like the nucleus accumbens and hypothalamus. The connection between these brain regions can enhance emotional processing and mediate our stress responses. Also, when music activates the amygdala, this enables a person to experience a ‘chill’ going down their spine because of the pleasurable and rewarding feelings that the music elicits.
The cerebellum is a small part of the brain found between the cerebrum and brainstem. This structure is mostly responsible for coordinating motor movements such as walking and running. It can also store physical memories, such as muscle memories. When it comes to music, the cerebellum can play an important role for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease progressively lose their memories and may forget who their loved ones are or how to do daily tasks. However, individuals with disease may be able to do physical activities such as playing the piano or guitar because playing these instruments have become a muscle memory for them. Even if their other memories fade from their brains, the memories formed in the cerebellum do not.
The hippocampus is a brain structure that produces memories, regulates our emotional and stress responses, and helps us to navigate around. It is coined the ‘central’ processing center of the brain, and it is one of the main areas that Alzheimer’s disease attacks first when it begins to spread around the body. Research has shown that music can evoke positive emotions within the hippocampus that can lower the amount of cortisol released in the blood. This decrease of cortisol can help mediate metabolism and facilitates stress regulation. Apart from this, studies have shown that the hippocampus is associated with humans’ ability to form and maintain social attachments. When music activates neurological activity within the hippocampus, it is strengthening social cohesion and attachment. It may be a reason why humans enjoy listening to music together, and why music has maintained such an integral part of human culture since the beginning of time.
Arguably one of the lesser known areas of the brain, the putamen is an important structure that processes rhythm and regulates coordination and movement of the body. Research has shown that music can actually increase the amount of dopamine released in this area, and it can also increase an individual’s bodily response to rhythm. In other words, music can provide some assistance to people when performing physical activities, such as walking or talking. This benefit comes especially in handy for patients with Parkinson’s disease. Individuals with this illness have trouble with coordinated body movements, uncontrollable body movements, and resting tremors. Music has been shown to actually help patients do things like standing up or down, and sometimes even walking, because of how the rhythmic beats influence the putamen and release dopamine in this area. When the music stops, unfortunately, the symptoms return.
Musical therapy was first coined in 1945, and it started off as an intervention to supplement other types of therapy and recreation that military members in U.S. Army hospitals were going through at the time. In 2020, nearly 2 million individuals in the United States underwent musical therapy treatment. Music therapy is a practice that uses research-based musical interventions to aid licensed therapists address physical and mental health care goals. In this unique type of therapy, trained professionals utilize different musical practices such as singing, songwriting, music listening, and playlisting to help patients manage their adverse symptoms. Patients are encouraged to express themselves in whatever way feels most comfortable, and it can be a social activity that includes the patient, their therapist, and caregivers. One of the best parts about this treatment is that music therapy can be used to treat patients of all ages, cultures, and backgrounds because music can be such a universal experience. Music therapy is also available in many different forms: whether it be in an in-patient or out-patient clinic, finding a program right for you or a loved one may not be such a hassle. Some proven benefits of music intervention are:
- Increase in joy
- Increase in motivation
- Decrease pain perception
- Increase in expression
- Improvement in memory
- Development of healthy coping
- Lowered blood pressure
- Decrease in muscle tension
- Decrease depression and anxiety
- Lessening feelings of isolation