As long as people have been around, there has been music. Early humans used bone and ivory to make flutes. Archeologists have found examples that date back 60 000 years including a flute made from bear bones.
Before even those instruments, humans likely used the instruments they were born with, their voices. Of course, we don’t have archeological evidence for this. Our paleolithic ancestors didn’t write lyrics or sheet music for us to find.
However, studies have shown that areas of caves with the best acoustics have the highest number of cave paintings. This suggests that our earliest ancestors painted as a part of a musical ritual.
So what is it about music that is so enduring? What has made it part of our culture and being for millennia?
Well, science may have the answer.
You see, study after study has shown that our bodies, minds, and communities respond positively to music. It’s not all just about mood though. Music has the power to change the way we think, to aid our learning, and to create societal bonds.
In a sense, music is magic. It has an almost mythical power to change the world. Think about how much of a cultural impact musical phenomena like Woodstock, The Beatles, Live Aid and so many more had on the world. And that’s just in living memory.
While scientists have been working hard to decode the effect of music on our bodies, there is undeniably some sort of unexplainable draw in music. Something that can be felt but not explained.
But, as the unexplainable is pretty dang hard to explain, we’re going to focus on the observable and proveable benefits of music.
Music’s reach in the body and psyche is huge. There are so many different ways that music makes our lives and health better.
To make it easier to understand we’ve split this section into four parts. That doesn’t mean that these four areas are isolated from each other. In fact, they work in tandem. When music impacts our heart rate it has a knock-on effect that touches our brains, mood, and personality.
So, while we’ve separated the effects of music you shouldn’t think of music as an individual tonic. Think of it as a holistic treatment that can target a number of ailments, issues, and conditions.
Music has a beat just like your heart has a beat. Some even argue that music is a direct creation of the heartbeat.
They suggest that the rhythms and tempos used in musical compositions harken back to the sound of our mothers’ pulse that we hear in the womb.
What is indisputable, however, is that music has a measurable effect on your heart. The pounding of drums and strumming of strings can increase or decrease your heart rate and blood pressure.
In several studies, patients were found to have reduced heart rates and blood pressure when their medical treatment was supplemented with music. A lower heart rate is generally a sign of reduced anxiety and stress. Both of which are common side effects of medical treatment.
Music can also help increase your blood flow. This might seem contradictory when we’ve just spoken about reducing heart rates but it’s not. When your heart beats faster, it tends to pump less efficiently meaning that your blood flow is actually reduced.
Volunteers who listened to music in one study saw a 26% increase in blood flow. This offers the same benefits to the body as aerobic exercise. Namely an increase in oxygen levels which can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Making music can also impact our lungs. Woodwind players, brass players, and singers have been found to have better lung capacities than non-musicians. This is because of the way they use their lungs to blow air and create music.
Creating a sound from brass or woodwind instruments requires a significant amount of air. Wind and brass musicians train their lungs to cope with the demands of their instrument through practice. The same is true of singing.
Surprisingly, playing a musical instrument can also impact our posture and muscle tone.
Musicians are often characterized as weedy, nerdy characters in many media portrayals. Those of us who played in the school band probably remember the teasing and jokes made at our expense.
However, playing an instrument requires a huge amount of dexterity, poise, and in some cases, endurance and strength. I mean, have you seen the size of a tuba?
Musicians tend to have better posture and core muscles because they need to hold their instruments correctly. Wind and brass players in particular need to get their posture and positioning right so that they can breathe freely.
Drummers have a notoriously strenuous occupation. The stamina and muscle tone it takes to be a gigging drummer is insane. According to one study, an hour-long show can see a drummer burning around 600 calories.
Then there’s the fact that the repetitive actions used to play many instruments can actually help tone those muscles. Singers, wood, and brass musicians have been found to have better muscle tone than their peers. Drummers have incredible shoulder, back, and arm muscles.
Ok, they’re not going to win a bodybuilding competition but the benefits of their instrument on their body are measurable and undeniable.
This is a vast field. Music impacts the brain in so many ways from encouraging it to release chemicals and hormones to dredging up long-forgotten memories.
There have been and continues to be many studies investigating how the brain responds to music.
We’ll do our best to give you a snapshot of all this research but we recommend reading around the subject too.
One of the best things about music and the brain is the fact that listening to music activates so many different parts of our grey matter. There isn’t one central music lobe instead, we get a whole-brain workout.
Pitch is decoded in the right temporal lobe. Timbre, which helps us identify which instrument is being played, activates a part of the brain called the posterior Heschl’s gyrus and superior temporal sulcus. The cerebellum is in charge of the rhythm and our frontal lobe deals with the emotional interpretation of music.
Scientists have found used MRI and PET scans to observe the brain as it listens to music and it lights up like a Christmas tree. This is excellent for our health as the brain continues to learn and develop throughout our lives. This process is thanks to something called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity refers to the way that our neural pathways are like plastic in that they can be molded and shaped throughout our lives. Using different areas of the brain frequently can help keep our neural pathways flexible and ready to change. If you don’t activate and stimulate your brain these pathways can become fixed and inflexible.
Music aids neuroplasticity because it triggers so many different parts of the brain. You might not think it, but your brain has to work really hard to understand and interpret music. Music is quite mathematical and architectural. Your brain needs to work out all the patterns and designs.
Increased neuroplasticity leads to increased brain function which can help keep our brains healthy.
This is becoming increasingly clear in studies examining the effect of music on memory. Studies have shown that memories connected and formed with music are more resilient to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Patients suffering from memory-related illnesses have shown better recall when music associated with a particular memory is played.
Try it yourself. Think about a memory associated with music, perhaps it’s your wedding, your first concert, a really great party. Most people find it easier to recall the details of that sort of memory compared to memories without music.
In a similar vein, music can help us learn. The Mozart effect has been well documented over the years. It’s the idea that listening to Mozart can boost our ability to complete and comprehend certain mental tasks.
Listening to music activates both the left and right sides of the brain. When both hemispheres of the brain are activated our brains are more receptive to learning.
Music switches on all those different areas we mentioned earlier. It means that signals and neural pathways can form and move between all the different areas of our brains with less resistance.
Essentially, having background music on while you study opens up many blocks and gates in your brain that would otherwise make learning more difficult.
The type of music you play is important. Calm, instrumental music is best for committing things to memory and processing large amounts of information. The instruments fire up your brain but the lack of lyrics gives your brain space to process the information.
Faster paced music is better for learning vocabulary and languages. This is because the tempo and rhythm are closer to our speaking speed. Rhythm is super useful for remembering things. Think about how you learned the alphabet or the number of songs in children’s programs.
Another way music impacts the brain is by changing the way we feel pain. Pain is a neurological response to a stimulus. It is not an actual thing merely our brain’s interpretation of something else.
Let’s say, for example, something hot touches our skin. The message gets sent to the brain through the nervous system via the spinal cord. The brain registers that message as a painful and dangerous stimulus and it creates a pain response that is felt by the nerves. It is known as the gate control theory of pain.
Pain killers, anesthesias, and analgesics work to reduce and block pain by preventing the signals from getting further up the nervous system. If your brain doesn’t get the message, you don’t get the pain.
There is some clinical evidence and lots of anecdotal evidence that suggests that music can be an effective form of pain relief. It doesn’t work in the same way as pain killers as it can’t block nerves.
What music does do is distract the brain. When the brain focuses on music rather than the pain signals and sensations, it can’t create the pain response as effectively. It’s the equivalent of dangling a set of keys in front of a crying baby. They forget whatever it was that was bothering them in the first place and focus on the keys.
The other way that music can reduce pain is through the production of endorphins and dopamine. Both of these are happy hormones and help to reduce pain in interesting ways.
Endorphins are created when we take part in pleasurable activities like listening to music. The endorphins coat the opiate receptors in the brain and block pain transmissions. Once the body detects endorphins, it begins to release dopamine.
Dopamine is part of our brain’s reward system. When you do something good, your brain releases dopamine. This makes us feel happy and motivated. When we listen to music as a way of providing pain relief, it first blocks the pain and then makes the experience pleasurable.
Of course, music has its limits. No one is suggesting that you can replace anesthesia with music for surgery. However, music does seem to be particularly effective for some conditions especially chronic pain conditions.
Have you ever watched a horror movie and felt fear creep over you when the tense music starts?
How about when you hear a song that you’ve been using as your alarm sound? Does it fill you with a sense of dread?
This is all because we build associations with certain sounds and songs. If we build positive associations with a type or genre of music then our brain gives us a dopamine hit when we hear it again. It’s sort of like a Pavlovian response but with less saliva.
Equally, negative associations can make us feel scared or stressed when we hear a particular song or genre. This is a helpful response even if it’s not the most pleasant. It is our body’s way of keeping us safe.
Remember the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? That screeching violin has come to be a shorthand for danger. When we hear we know that we can expect something dangerous or frightening.
Music’s effect on our mood and emotions goes beyond associations, however. The actual sound of certain chords makes us feel different emotions. Remember how we talked about the frontal lobe and how it interprets emotional responses? That’s because the frontal lobe is the emotional center of our brain.
When we hear minor chords, for example, our frontal lobe interprets them as sad or melancholy. Major chords, on the other hand, are decidedly happy according to our frontal lobes.
The only reason we can make this interpretation is that the music triggers that particular emotional response. The brain hears a song and thinks to itself; ‘oh ok, I know what this is. This is sad. Let’s hit the sad buttons.’
While we’re talking about sadness, let’s talk about the sympathetic response we get from listening to music. The old cliche focuses on breakups. When we go through a break up we listen to breakup music and cry out our heartache.
Well, studies have shown that this is actually a healthy and positive experience overall. Listening to music that matches our mood helps us feel understood and heard. It’s similar to having a friend or family member who listens to you and validates your feelings.
Upbeat music can motivate us as well as making us feel happier. If you’ve ever watched the Olympics, you’ll have noticed that a lot of athletes are plugged into music before they compete.
There are two reasons for this. The first is to do with stress. For many people, listening to music they love or soothing music can help them feel more relaxed and calm. This is because music can lower our heart rate and release happy hormones as we’ve already discussed.
The second reason is down to motivation. Music can make use run harder, jump further, and last longer. Music helps to stimulate us by breaking us out of the routine tasks we complete each day, it wakes us from a stupor of emails, meetings, and chores.
Also, the auditory neurons are connected to the motor neurons which create movement. When one is stimulated the other one is also stimulated. This is a holdover from the days when we had to run from potential threats like saber tooth tigers. It paid to be able to run and listen for sounds of pursuit.
Another key feature of music and motivation is our body’s need to match a beat. Think about the exercise classes in gyms. A lot of them are set to music. This is because a beat can help our motor neurons understand what they need to do.
Once we find the rhythm and we start to match it, we get a boost of endorphins and dopamine. This makes us feel good about what we are doing. We feel more confident and our self-esteem gets a boost.
Because our brains are dopamine junkies, we are more likely to continue an activity that gives us a dopamine hit. Thus, we find ourselves more motivated to exercise and more able to push ourselves.
This doesn’t only work for Zumba. If you add music to your morning run or your gym routine, you’ll likely see a boost in confidence and stamina. It is particularly effective if you can find music that matches the tempo of your workout.
On the other end of the spectrum, music can help us relax and reduce stimulation. Listening to something with a slower tempo and rhythm encourages us to slow down. Our breathing naturally slows to match the rhythm making us calmer.
Music has long been used in meditation and relaxation as a way of focusing on breathing and calming thoughts. It’s why we have lullabies for babies. They don’t always understand the words but they do recognize and match the tempo.
Have you ever wondered why countries have national anthems? It’s because music can bring people together. It is a wonderful community builder.
Anthems, hymns, folk songs, and just out and out bangers can help people to bond and feel like they belong. One of my most enduring memories of my time at university is a pub full of students belting out Let It Go. Ok, it’s not the greatest song, but we all felt like one thing, one body. It was really touching.
You get the same effect when you stand in a stadium and sing your anthem. You and your fellow supporters feel unified and proud to be who you are.
That sense of belonging is hugely important to us as human beings. We need to connect with others and feel a sense of community. It’s just ingrained in us as scientist Matthew Lieberman tells us.
When humans feel snubbed or excluded we are hurt in a way that feels physical but is actually psychological. Isolation or lack of connection can have a profound effect on us. In extreme cases, it can cause death.
Sharing a song with a person can help us relate to them and feel like we belong. Creating music with a person or people amplifies that effect. When you play or sing in a group you are literally working together to create a single piece. You are one entity.
There are studies that prove that being part of a band or choir is an effective way to bond with lots of people quickly.
The beat of the music is also important. Rousing rhythms tend to mobilize people. Think about marching bands and war drums. They make us want to move to match the beat.
It’s why military units have their own bands. In the days when drummers and buglers went into battle with the soldiers, they played marching tunes to unify the troops and keep them moving forward.
Ok, that was a lot of information to take in. Let’s take a moment to summarize and reflect on the benefits of music.
1. Reduce your heart rate and increase your blood flow.
Lower heart rates and increased blood flow can help reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and neurological disorders.
2. Can improve your motor skills, lung capacity, and muscle tone.
Depending on what instrument you play, you’ll find that you’re working out a lot of different muscles and using and improving your hand-eye coordination.
3. It’s a workout for your whole brain.
Understanding and interpreting music is a complex process that uses lots of different areas of your brain.
4. Can help your brain stay supple.
Frequently activating and stimulating different areas of your brain encourages your neural pathways to change, rearrange, and make new connections. This neuroplasticity is key to a healthy brain.
5. Memory recall and creation is improved by music.
Music can help our brains organize and store memories more securely and efficiently. Listening to music can also help us remember things because of the deeper connection made when the memory was created.
6. Can make you more effective During Studying
Music warms up both hemispheres of your brain and helps you memorize and process information.
7. Can be an effective form of pain relief.
Music releases endorphins and dopamine which activates the opiate receptors in our brain and blocks pain signals.
8. Our mood is greatly affected by music.
Listening to happy music can boost your mood. Listening to sad music when you’re down can make you feel heard and validated.
9. Can Give You Motivation To Train Harder, Do Better And Achieve Your Goals.
The tempo, rhythm, and pitch of upbeat music can give you a much needed motivational boost.
10. It brings people together.
It can unify people of different backgrounds, histories, and lifestyles. It can make us feel close to those around us. This is crucial for human happiness.
Studies conducted into the effects of music tend to rely on participant feedback or medical imaging to establish results.
In the majority of studies using imaging machines like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET) machines, participants listen to or create music as they lay in the machine.
Doctors are then able to identify which areas of the brain are activated and stimulated by the music.
MRI scans allow doctors and scientists to see the shape and condition of organs in your body. The machine uses magnetic waves to create a 3D image of your brain. These scans have been used to prove whether musicians have more developed areas of the brain compared to non-musicians.
PET scans require a radioactive tracer dye. This tracer is injected into the patient before they enter the machine. Once in the machine, doctors are able to identify how organs are functioning by looking for the presence of the tracer.
In studies on music effects, scientists and doctors have used PET scans to see which parts of the brain are stimulated when music is played. They are able to do this because those areas draw more blood when in use so there is a higher tracer presence.
These scans and studies are empirical as they rely on the creation and analysis of systematic data. That is data that can be verified and picked up by the five senses.
Other studies which comprise the majority of studies into music’s effect on the human body, use non-empirical data. This is usually participant feedback and personal responses to the studies. In some cases, these studies also use anecdotal evidence.
Neither is more or less important than the other. In the past, empirical studies were given more credibility and credence than non-empirical studies. These were the days when cold hard data was thought to be more informative than personal experience.
Thankfully, we have moved past those days. Non-empirical studies have given us a much deeper understanding of the human condition than data could ever. Together empirical and non-empirical studies help us get a more rounded understanding of the world around us.
Of course, all studies have their limitations. One of the major issues with studies conducted into music’s effect on humans is that they rely on individual participant reporting.
The problem with this is that people perceive things like pain, emotions, and motivation differently. This is why it’s important to have a large sample size in these studies.
When you have a large group of participants, you can average out the results so outlying results don’t skew the results.
Unfortunately, large studies require large budgets. In most nations funding for science and the arts are frequently lower than they ought to be.
Thankfully, there is an increased interest in the medical and psychological applications of music which means that larger studies are becoming more frequent.
If you’re in the groove for checking out some music-related studies, you could check out these studies.
They are not necessarily light reading, but you can dip in and out of the studies as you like.
They contain a lot of interesting conclusions and illuminate some of the numerous benefits music can bestow on us.
This is an interesting question. You see what songs should feature on your playlist depends on what you are trying to achieve and what kind of music you like.
In general, studies have shown that listening to music you like is almost always more beneficial to you. This doesn’t mean you have to stick to your old worn out playlists. Explore some new genres and find something you like.
If you’re stuck on what to listen to, here are some recommendations.
If you’re ever in need of a ready made playlist, check out Youtube or Spotify. There are hundreds of playlists ready for you.
Some platforms like Spotify even match your playlist to the speed of your workout if you’re looking for some music to help motivate your morning jog.
Scientists and health professionals are beginning to recognize the therapeutic benefits of music for all manner of ailments. Music therapy, which really began following the second world war, is an ever-growing industry.
Since 1994, music therapy has been a reimbursable service from third party companies. This gave it equal standing with other allied health services like occupational therapy and physical therapy.
The American Music Therapy Association is the leading professional association for music therapists and currently counts over 8000 music therapists as members. They publish two research journals and numerous other publications.
Their current mission is to advocate for music therapy at state and federal levels while promoting awareness of the benefits to the public.
With more and more people, doctors, scientists, and insurance companies recognizing the holistic and targeted benefits music therapy can provide, the future looks bright for music therapy.
Even though music has been created for tens of thousands of years and studied for thousands of years, we still don’t fully understand why it creates such a deep and emotional reaction in humans.
Scientists and doctors continue to delve into the mathematics and structural formulas of music. They look for movements, sounds, and patterns that can help patients recover and relax. It’s necessary and important work.
However, there is more to music than formulas. No matter how much we study music and how it interacts with the brain and the body, there will always be that special part, that chord or sound that touches us deeper than MRIs or PET scans can measure.
It’s the bit that makes our feet tap or our head bob along to the beat. The bit that fills musicians with energy and passion. It’s the part that brings a room full of people or a stadium full of people together. It’s that magical part of music that touches the soul.
We’ll never know what exactly it is. But that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to be explained or rationalized. The special thing about music, the thing that we love about music, is that it demands to be felt.
So go feel the music.