The main reason that we find music so attractive is that it affects so many different parts of the brain at once, especially if we like it.
Obviously, our auditory circuits are activated, but we also use other parts of our brains when we listen to music. Ever find dancing hard to resist? Not surprisingly, brain scans show that rhythm lights up the motor areas. Music is linked to movement. A brain sector associated with feeling emotions, called the limbic regions, is impacted by rhythm and tone. Areas we use when our mind wanders and for creativity light up when we hear timbre. We know this because researchers at the Suomen Akatemia (Academy of Finland) took MRIs of people’s brains while listening to modern Argentine tango in 2011.
When we listen to music, ancient reward networks that reinforce activities like eating and sex are activated. Incredibly, the most evolved areas involved in cognitive processes, also light up and interact with the ancient parts. Music impacts our brains in so many ways all at once that resisting it is impossible.
As time advances, scientists are finding out more about how music affects our bodies, minds, and lives.
On the same wavelength
Music can help two people synchronize their minds. In 2009, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin found that when two people play the same thing on the guitar simultaneously, the activity of their brain waves synchronized.
Then in 2012, the same researchers recruited 32 experienced guitarists and paired them off into 16 guitar duets. This time the guitarists played different parts of the same music—one played the melody and the other the harmony. Even though the musicians played different things, they had to coordinate, which was reflected in their brain wave activity.
“When people coordinate actions with one another, small networks within the brain and, remarkably, between the brains are formed, especially when the activities need to be precisely aligned in time, for example at the joint play onset of a piece,” says Johanna Sänger, one of the scientists involved.
In 2019, researchers at the Anglia Ruskin University investigated brain synchronization during music therapy. These scientists hooked up both therapist and patient to EEG machines in a technique called hyperscanning. By recording the activity of two brains simultaneously, researchers can see how two people are interacting.
In one of the particular sessions recorded, the patient felt mostly negative emotions. Then, she suddenly had a positive peak because the therapy was working for her. A few moments later, the therapist also had a positive peak because she realized that the session helped her patient.
During much of human history, music was something that could only be shared. There were no headphones or devices for people to listen to music individually. Keeping in mind its social history, it is not surprising that music can help us synchronize our thoughts to those of people around us.
Take a load off
Listening to music can make life easier. Evidence shows that listening to music can ease chronic pain and depression.
In 2006 The Journal of Advanced Nursing published the results of a clinical trial involving 60 patients. They reported feeling chronic pain for more than six years and said that this pain affected more than one part of their bodies.
The researchers separated the participants into three groups. The first group listened to the music of their choice for one hour a day on headphones. The second group enjoyed music selected by the scientists for an hour each day. The final group did not listen to music.
When asked about their pain at the end of the trial, the participants who listened to music reported feeling between 12% and 21% less pain than they had when the trial began. The control group reported feeling 1% to 2% more pain. Additionally, the groups that listened to music reported feeling less depressed and more in control of their pain.
In 2005, the same researchers involved in this study found that listening to 45 minutes of relaxing music before bedtime helps people fall asleep more quickly.
Young children can be a handful. It’s not always easy to get them to cooperate, much less help. Learning music increases the likelihood that children will do both.
Investigators at the School of Psychology at the University of West London created a study to see just what effect music had on young children in a classroom environment in 2013. Half of the children went to a music class in which they sang and played the percussion bullfrog. The other group went to storytime. Afterward, the kids played a co-operation game and a helping game. The children who had the music class helped and cooperated more than the storytime children.
Parents of young children might want to know if this will work at home? What is there to lose? Sing some songs or recite nursery rhymes at about the same time every day, and you’ll see if your children are more docile afterward or not.
Of course, the list of benefits that music provides us goes on and on. It has been shown to help patients with cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and sufferers of strokes. Science has also found that it has a variety of benefits during child development. These benefits go far beyond being more helpful. Infants who are exposed to music learn to speak more quickly. Students that play an instrument or sing get
better scores in a variety of subjects. There is no doubt that music is a vital part of human existence. Those goosebumps you get when you listen? Well, how could something so powerful not give you goosebumps?