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Music isn’t something you can touch, eat, or drink. It isn’t something you physically put into your body, yet it can have profound effects on our mood and happiness.
One only has to look at the sheer volume of scientific work to get a sense of how entwined we are with music. From the early days of Aristotle to modern day medical practice, music has been used to improve the quality of life of a countless number of people.
We spend great sums of money to keep music in our lives, equating to a 47.5 billion dollar global industry. We obsess over those who can create it, and dream about the day when we ourselves can play an instrument.
So why does this intangible obsession hold such intrinsic value? Luckily, neuroscience has begun to shed light on this mystery. It turns out that music can have drastic effects not only on your happiness but also on your actual psychical body.
Let’s start where music hits the hardest – the brain.
How Music Shapes Your Brain
In the last few decades, neuroscientists have made drastic discoveries regarding the inner workings of our brain. This has been made possible by new scanning technology such as fMRI and PET scanners. These machines provide the means to poke and prod the brain and and record what happens.
For instance, subjects were given specific tasks such as reading or math problems. Once hooked up to these scanners, scientists were able to see what areas of the brain were most active as well as the magnitude of brain activity for each task.
Interestingly, there was one activity that stood out from the others:
- You guessed it – music.
When the subjects were given a piece of music to listen to multiple areas of the brain lit up simultaneously. The subjects had to process the music, interpret meaning, distinguish melody and rhythm, and then recombine these parts into an experience they can interpret.
Our brains have to crunch and process all of this data, in parallel, without the work of our active conscious.
What’s more, when the scientists scanned the brains of musicians playing their instrument the brain activity went from interesting to astounding. Multiple areas of the brain became active. Different areas of the brain were forced to work in unison to produce the music, specifically, the visual, auditory and motor cortex.
Playing an instrument requires you to perfectly control your hands, read the musical notes, and simultaneously listening to your instrument, as well as those around you. The brain is required to keep tempo, control motor function, access memory, and improvise.
The brain activity required for playing an instrument is the brain’s equivalent to going to the gym for a full body workout.
Early brain studies have shown that certain areas of musician’s brains are larger when compared to non-musicians.
For example, it appears that the visual-motor cortex appears to be larger in keyboard players.
A number of larger studies have shown that long periods of musical practice result in significant structural brain changes.
The unique demands of music strengthens the neural pathways of these cortexes, which results in spillover effects to other parts of our lives.
This is particularly apparent in children. It's shown that learning to play an instrument enhances the ability to remember words through the enlargement of the left cranial temporal regions.
In fact, musically trained participants remembered 17% more verbal information than that those without musical training!
You may be familiar with the heuristic of a two-sided brain. Where the left half of the brain tends to control more mathematical concepts and the right side controls creativity. The region between these two hemispheres is called the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is what allows the two regions to talk to one another.
"What's unique about playing an instrument is that it requires a wide array of brain regions and cognitive functions to work together simultaneously, in both right and left hemispheres of the brain." - Alison Balbag
Interestingly, music requires both sides of the brain to communicate and pass information. For this reason, the corpus callosum tends to be much stronger in experienced musicians.
When playing music, the bridge between the two hemispheres is required to send more information faster and through more diverse routes.
The long-range connections between gray matter are strengthened which may lead to increased verbal memory.
Therefore, learning and playing an instrument may help you solve problems faster and develop strong executive functions such as:
It may also help you develop an increased ability to handle simultaneous processing of both emotional and cognitive aspects.
Additionally, sending your brain for a full body workout may improve your memory functions allowing you to retrieve memories more quickly. Your spatial reason will be enhanced alongside an increase in literary skills.
The Long Term Benefits Of Music
The beneficial effects of music don’t stop when you put down the instrument. Rather, music provides what neuroscientists call a spillover effect. In other words, the benefit of learning an instrument touches many other areas of your life.
One study compared a group of adults with varying levels of musical training. Specifically, when they were young. They were broken into three groups:
The participants were then subjected to a test to monitor the speed of their neural networks.
Those who had received moderate amounts of musical training during their youth showed the fastest neural response. This becomes particularly important for audio-neural processing as we age.
Those without musical training may have more difficulty processing speech in difficult listening environments. Studies like this suggest that developing musical skill at a young age has a lasting impact on our quality of lives.
“It didn’t matter what instrument you played, it just mattered that you played.” – Nina Kraus
Additional studies have shown that musical training can have positive effects on motor, emotional, and cognitive deficits observed in patients with diseases such as Parkinson Disease.
Additionally, music has been shown to aid in the rehabilitation of fine motor skills among stroke patients.
Even more surprising, learning music at a young age helps stage off the cognitive impairment caused by degenerative brain disorders such as dementia.
Yet another study showed that those who learned a musical instrument for over 10 years scored highest in areas such as nonverbal memory, naming objects, and taking in and adapting new information.
In contrast, those with no musical training performed the least well.
The key takeaway of the studies was that the participants didn’t lose all of the benefits of music even if you hadn’t played for decades.
If you are reading this and feel like you missed out, then I have some good news. You can still get many of the same benefits if you start now. Jennifer A. Bugos of the University of South Florida has been completing some research on the positive effects of learning piano at a later stage in life.
Preliminary results show that after six months, those who had received piano lessons showed gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, and planning ability, compared with those who had not received lessons.
There is one particularly striking documentary that outlines how music can be used to improve the lives of otherwise stranded patients. Have a look at the video clip below.
Music, Sex, Drugs, and Money
What does music, food, gambling, drugs, and sex all have in common? It just so happens they release the same feel-good chemical called dopamine. This is the same neurotransmitter that is released during euphoria-inducing stimuli such as sex, cocaine use, junk food, and money.
When listening to our favorite songs, our pupils in our eyes dilate, our pulse quickens, or blood pressure rises, the electrical conductance of our skin is lowered, and the cerebellum, a brain region associated with bodily movement, becomes active.
Anyone who has experienced a “shivers-down-the-spine” moment while listening to music has had a rush of dopamine released into his or her brain. This is particularly true following the anticipation to peak emotional response section of the song.
When pleasurable music is heard, a section of the brain called the striatum releases a flood of dopamine. However, this hit of dopamine doesn’t only occur during the peak emotional section, but can also be seen during the build-up phase before the chorus. Your mind expects a resolution of the building tension and begins to release dopamine in response.
It’s theorized that this is a hijacked response of a pathway that is designed for survival, in this case, the ability for our brains to make predictions about the future. If these predictions turn out to be true, our brain provides itself a little reward in the form of a dopamine hit. This hit of dopamine helped solidify our memory of the predictions that turned out to be correct.
One study showed the perceived resolution of a musical piece is akin to being correct about your prediction of the future. This study showed that participant’s dopamine levels were 9% higher when listening to music they enjoyed.
The next time you experience an emotion while listening to music remember that ancient reward circuits are flooding your brain with a chemical that is designed to make you feel good.
How To Use Music To Become Happier
There have been a number of studies investigating how music can be used to increase your mood on a daily basis. In two studies, participants successfully improved their moods in the short term and boosted their overall happiness over a two-week period. The key was to listen to upbeat music while actively trying to improve their mood.
“People were successful at raising their positive mood as long as the music they listened to was happy and upbeat." – Dr. Yuna Ferguson
Another Finnish study of 1000 students has shown that learning a musical instrument had a positive impact on overall satisfaction of school. It’s no secret that a majority of people use music to control their mood, but what are the best ways to do it?
Here are 6 ways you can use music to make you happier.
1. Use Music To Improve Your Mood
Listening to upbeat, higher-tempo music makes it easier to recall positive memories.
Keep in mind that this works better if you are consciously aware you are trying to make yourself happier.
Participants in the study were able to increase their overall mood in as little as 2 weeks by listening to music for more than 12 minutes a day.
Note that if the upbeat music is on in the background, or you're not consciously aware that you're listening to it to boost your mood, the songs have little effect on how you feel.
2. Use Music To Be More Creative
if you’re ever in a crunch to come up with a good idea, or are in need of a little boost to your brainstorming session, consider putting on some upbeat music. A recent study out of Sydney and the Netherlands has found that people come up with more creative solutions to problems when they're listening to 'happy' music.
The study involved 155 participants that were divided into five groups and asked to complete a series of tasks requiring different kinds of creativity. Four of the groups completed the tasks while listening to a piece of classical music, while the fifth control group worked in silence.
The group who were listening to the happy music came up with more ideas, and their ideas were more creative and original, compared to those who brainstormed in silence.
So the next time you’re under a deadline consider using some upbeat music to give you a little boost.
3. Use Music To Get A Better Workout
This tip will come as little surprise to anyone who is familiar with working out. A study involving 12 males showed that using fast paced music increased their performance up to 3.5%.
While not exactly groundbreaking for the average athlete, music can be used to get significant results for those pushing the boundaries.
Another study showed that those who listened to music consumed 7% less oxygen than the control group.
The study also showed that these athletes enjoyed their workouts more when listening to music. Additional studies from Professor Costas Karageorghis from Brunel University have shown improvements of up to 15%.
In addition to enhancing performance, music has been shown to lower the perception of effort. In essence, dulling or masking some of the pain associated with training. We know from scanning the brain that when athletes are played loud, upbeat music, there is an increase in activity in the ascending reticular activating system - an area of the brain that controls pain modulation.
Tip - Look for songs that have a tempo of around 120-140 BPM. This has been shown to be the most effective for increasing performance.
4. Use Music To Be More Productive
Music has been shown time and time again to increase your productivity. This is true when it comes to studying or working in a loud open office space.
One study concluded that participants who listened to music completed their task more quickly and more accurately than the control group.
“When you’re stressed, you might make a decision more hastily; you have a very narrow focus of attention. When you’re in a positive mood, you’re able to take in more options.” - Teresa Lesiuk
This is particularly true when the task you are performing is repetitive in nature. Studies have shown that there are likely economic benefits for companies to allow their workers to listen to music during repetitive tasks.
One famous study even concluded that listening to 10 minutes of Mozart had the potential to raise your I.Q. score by 8 or 9 points! This find has notoriously been called the “Mozart Effect.” However, it’s now being hotly contested by a number of researchers and should be taken with a grain of salt.
Whatever the case, it’s tough to argue that music doesn’t help during periods of heavy concentration. I recommend you focus on using music that doesn’t contain lyrics and isn’t too upbeat.
Here are some quick recommendations for some playlists to try out (all Spotify playlist):
Chill.out.brain: Calm electronic music
Peaceful Piano: self-explanatory
Deep Focus: atmospheric rock
Instrumental Study: ambient music
Music For Concentration: minimalistic electronic and modern classical
5. Use Music To Increase Libido
“Music can increase one’s libido” - Curtis Levang
While this subject is less studied than the others, there has been some evidence that music can help improve the libido of men who suffer from low testosterone.
Music has the potential to elevate serotonin levels in the body. Therefore, it can be helpful for men with low testosterone levels to boost their sex-drive.
While not as tenable as the other findings, there may be some truth to it.
6. Increase Verbal Memory
Researchers have shown that some forms of musical training enhance verbal intelligence and executive function. With only 20 days of training, 90% of children participants showed an increase in verbal intelligence.
This showed music’s potential for the transfer effect – where learning music can have positive effects in an entirely different area. This study supports other findings where children who learned instruments had superior reading ability compared to their peers.
Music Affects Us All
It doesn’t matter whether it’s Beethoven, The Beatles, or Adele, your favorite music triggers the same responses in your brain as others do in theirs. Music is primal. It affects us all. A study by Dr. Jonathan Burdette shows that your brain has a reaction to music whether you like it or not.
His study looked at 21 people while they listened to five different genres (classical, country, rap, rock and Chinese opera). The fMRI scans showed that the listener’s preferences had the greatest impact on brain connectivity.
In other words, the greatest brain activity occurred when the participants listened to genres of music they preferred.
Other studies have demonstrated that the same areas of the brain lit up when participants listened to the same pieces of music.
This suggests that the participants not only perceive the music the same way but, despite any personal differences, there's a good chance they shared a common experience.
Daniel Levitin, writer of the famous book “This Is Your Brain On Music,” has completed a meta-analysis of over 400 different studies to show the physiological benefit of music.
One ground-breaking study involved researchers divided groups of patients about to go into surgery. They provided one group anti-anxiety drugs while providing the other with music.
The patients who used music to reduce their anxiety reported lower anxiety compared to those on medication. While this is only a single study, it does suggest that there may be many potential uses for music that we are not taking advantage of.
If there is one thing that became clear as I was researching this article is that a world full of music will only be more positive. The ability of music to touch so many areas of our life makes it unique as well as indispensable.
The benefits of music are far-reaching, particularity when learning an instrument at a young age.
If there are any parents reading this article this is one fact you need to take away. A child who learned an instrument at a young age reaped the benefits long into their lives. The spillover effect was demonstrated time and time again.
While they may not show appreciation at the time, they have a better chance at growing up healthy and happy with a background in music.
For the rest of us, there are plenty of ways we can use music to improve our everyday lives.
Simply listening to positive music while actively working on your happiness is a quick way to make your day slightly more enjoyable.
Furthermore, it’s never too late to try your hand at learning an instrument.
There will be plenty reverberations into the other areas of your life alongside the enjoyment brought by the instrument itself.
I hope you’ve learned as much as I have and are convinced that music plays an important role in our overall happiness. Please consider sharing this article if you think others may find it helpful!