If you’ve been brought up with music, it is easy to take for granted the ways in which it has affected you. We listen to music without really noticing our elevated moods, our enhanced cognition or our ability to form a more coherent thought. Below are the ways in which music actually alters our brain as we listen.
Dopamine – The Feel-Good Factor
When we listen to a particularly moving piece of music, we get what is known as musical frisson. This can cause the dopamine to manifest in physical ways, the pleasurable ‘chills’ we get when a movement reaches a crescendo. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is associated with various stimuli, including drugs, sugar and being in love.
This is why you can end up listening or playing the same piece of music over and over. We anticipate a certain part of a piece of music and are rewarded when it comes. Effectively, we can become addicted to a piece of music the same way we can fall in love.
Oxytocin – The Food of Love
The associations between love and music have been long held. Classical Greek imager has Orpheus playing his golden Lyre to charm the queen of the underworld, and Shakespeare is famous for his lines on music and love. But there is a biological basis for this notion. As we listen to music our brain releases the love-making hormone Oxytocin.
In turn, this means that music is especially important in bonding, as can be witnessed when singing or playing as part of a group. Music’s ability to stimulate Oxytocin is one biological reason why we often prefer to listen as part of a group.
Supporting Long Term Memory
It has long been supposed that music has a very important benefit to aiding memory. A case in point is the 2018 study that reports on evidence where personally meaningful music can aid in communicating with Alzheimer’s disease. It can even alleviate symptoms of memory loss in patients.
A 2009 study found that music that had specific personal meaning, when played to participants, engaged activity in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain specifically responsible for supporting long term memory.
Most of us like to listen to music as a way of distressing from the hardships of modern life. It absorbs our attention and allows a temporary escape from the difficulties we face. However, there is a great deal more science behind it.
Researchers at McGill University found, in 2013, that listening to music increases the production of immunoglobulin A. This hormone not only boosts the immune system but helps to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone in the body.
At its most fundamental level, listening to music is a pattern recognition exercise – integral to creativity. We listen out for the peaks and troughs of a movement as we seek the high provided by Dopamine. Though we should be careful of what kind of music we listen to when we want to be creative, studies have shown that listening to uplifting music can increase levels of productivity.
In listening, we are employing pure cognitive processes, which we combine with the emotional state the music produces. It means that we are able to employ both left and right-hand sides of our brains.
In the past three decades, music’s role in child development has been a central point of study. It is now commonplace to find classical music scores or film soundtrack created with infants in mind. But it goes back even further and may have had a role early man’s development as a being.
Parents instinctively know to use music to calm their babies and children. In much the same way, we can picture human beings as they navigated the horrors of prehistory, using the singing voice as a means of consolation. Music then is not just a constructed pleasure, but actually a prehistoric instinct.
We can see, then, that music is far from just an idle pleasure. Our understanding of how music affects the brain is still ongoing, but studies are pointing ever more towards a fundamental, intrinsic link between brain development, evolution, and even medical applications.
There is no downside to music as a form of entertainment, activity or skill learning. It engages our emotions, memory and our physical processes in a way that no other form of art can compete with.