You’re driving on a carefree summer day, windows open, radio blasting; you’re inspired by the air, movement – and, especially, music. That song on the radio may be bringing back memories of a teenage romance, or a place you loved. Maybe you just feel joyful energy that seems to come out of nowhere, for no reason. Yet there is a reason. That music is doing things to your emotions, body and brain that you probably don’t even imagine. Music can work magic. It can even be medicine.
When those musical sound waves enter your ear and send signals to your brain, they’re unleashing a cascade of effects to an extent we’re just beginning to discover. We know, for example, that music can make us feel excited or calm, scared (think of the shower scene in the movie Psycho) or peaceful. When researchers hook a person up to a monitor measuring pulse rate and galvanic skin response (aka sweating), the changes are clear. And now scientists have proven that music changes the heart rate and blood pressure depending on things like tempo (speed) or pitch. So music is now used to reduce stress and ease pain. For instance, music can reduce the anxiety of cancer patients and side effects associated with chemotherapy. Some studies show that patients in pain after surgery or those in the ICU need less sedation when they listen to certain kinds of music, like Mozart’s piano sonatas. And people facing surgery who listen to music they choose show a lower release of stress hormones. We all instinctively use music this way when we put it on to calm ourselves and relax.
Now let’s go a step further. As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has said, “Goosebumps happen in the brain.” That is, when we feel something in our body, the cause is something happening in the brain. Music could actually use more parts of our brain than any other function, science suggests. So those emotions we feel when we’re listening arise in the so-called “pleasure areas” of the brain. And one of the brain areas that deals with processing music is also involved in emotion as well as memory. So no wonder music sparks such powerful feelings and memories! When music is at work in our brains, it can also affect the quality of our sleep and our mental alertness when we’re awake.
It used to be thought that the power of music might be self-evident to many listeners, but that it’s too subjective to be studied and proven scientifically. Today, now that we have the tools of brain-imaging technology, neuroscientists around the world are trying to map how music plays in the brain.
The more we understand, the better we can learn how to use music effectively to improve our well-being, our health and even our intelligence!
Already, music is being used to stunning effect to help people with neurological problems. Parkinson’s disease patients who normally can’t walk a straight line have been known to do so when they’re listening to music with a clear rhythmic beat. And music is working seeming miracles with stroke victims. I was moved to tears when I watched a young woman who lost the ability to speak clearly after a stroke have a treatment called melodic intonation therapy. When she was guided to sing what she wanted to say, the words came clearly. She finally was able to communicate with her toddler daughter and tell her not to cross the street alone, but to “wait for me.” Former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords worked with this technique after a gunshot wound left her unable to speak.
It used to be thought that our brains never changed in adulthood. Now we see that the brain is able to adapt and change at any age. We also know the effects of music actually can change the brain, even physically.
The brains of professional musicians, we’ve learned, are different from those of nonmusicians. The connector between the right and left brain can be bigger. And professional musicians have more gray matter. Of course, it could be that the musicians already had a bigger connector and more gray matter before their training. Nevertheless, the differences are significant. Furthermore, we’re seeing that musical training actually seems to increase the cognitive abilities of children. Just listening to music appears to have limited effects. But research indicates that kids who play an instrument or sing have greater verbal and other skills even as they grow older.
There’s more exciting news. For those of us who are no longer kids, studies show that music may enhance memory and cognitive performance in older adults. It can also help relieve depression. When we’re listening to music – or, even better, playing music – the brain is really acting like a kind of computer processor, analyzing and calculating relationships in the musical structure.
Scientists say we’re just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding music’s full potential to change our bodies, brains and lives.
So when you’re driving along, lost in music and a summer breeze, just enjoy. There’s no need to think about how those notes are working on your body and brain, how those neurons are making new connections. Just know that the power of music is even greater than any of us may have thought, and is filled with infinite possibilities!