Music and Science
This article describes the benefits of music and how it affects our brains and our bodies and why choosing a musical activity whether it’s music lessons or team building is such a good idea
Listening to and understanding music will help you learn more about yourself and others around you. You will be surprised to learn the benefits you are getting and what music can tell us about others without realizing it
Firstly lets start with the benefits of music
Benefits of Music
Music Improves Memory
Music and musical training have been shown to protect the aging brain and keep it healthy. There is evidence that the processing of music and language, specifically memorizing information, rely on some of the same brain systems.
It’s documented that patients with memory loss can often remember songs and specific song lyrics as a result doctors will often use music and lyric recall to help individuals retrieve lost memories. Certain music can trigger particularly unique memories- music from a specific time period will trigger memories from that time period. Want to remember something from the past? Listen to songs you listened to during that time
Researchers have also uncovered evidence that suggests the music we heard as teenagers has a greater emotional bind to our brain than anything we’ll listen to as adults. This idea of musical nostalgia is a fun exercise for anyone, but is most impactful for people suffering from memory loss, including those with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
University of Kansas Medical Center researchers conducted an experiment where they divided 70 healthy adults, ages 60 to 83, into three groups based on their amount of musical experience: no musical training, one to nine years of music lessons and at least 10 years of musical study.
The participants, who had similar fitness and education levels and were free of Alzheimer’s disease, were given several cognitive tests:
Those with the greatest amount of musical experience did best on these tests of mental acuity, followed by those with less musical study followed by those who never took music lessons. Compared to non-musicians, the individuals with a high degree of musical experience had much higher scores on the cognitive tests, including those related to visual and spacial memory, naming objects and the brain’s ability to adapt to new information
Interestingly, the benefits of musical study and training were still apparent in participants who no longer played an instrument.
Music Improves Workouts
Did you know listening to music releases endorphins in the brain?
Endorphins give us a heightened feeling of excitement. In addition to feeling euphoric, endorphins quell anxiety, ease pain and stabilize the immune system. With high endorphin levels, we have fewer negative effects of stress.
Listening to faster music can also increase the effort you exert during exercise. In one study, researchers found that cyclists worked harder and biked a further distance when listening to faster music as compared to music with a slower tempo.
When the tempo slowed, so did their pedaling and their entire effect. Their heart rates fell and their mileage dropped. They reported that they didn’t like the music much. On the other hand, when the tempo of the songs was upped 10 percent, the men covered more miles in the same period of time, produced more power with each pedal stroke and increased their pedal cadences.
For pace-based exercises like running or weight-lifting, music can help regulate rhythm and signal to the the brain when the body should move. This signal helps us to use our energy more efficiently, so we’re not exhausting ourselves too soon.
Research on the effects of music during exercise has been done for years. In 1911, an American researcher, Leonard Ayres, found that cyclists pedaled faster while listening to music than they did in silence.
This happens because listening to music can drown out our brain’s cries of fatigue. As our body realizes we’re tired and wants to stop exercising, it sends signals to the brain to stop for a break. Listening to music competes for our brain’s attention, and can help us to override those signals of fatigue, though this is mostly beneficial for low- and moderate-intensity exercise. During high-intensity exercise, music isn’t as powerful at pulling our brain’s attention away from the pain of the workout.
Not only can we push through the pain to exercise longer and harder when we listen to music, but it can actually help us to use our energy more efficiently. A 2012 study showed that cyclists who listened to music required 7% less oxygen to do the same work as those who cycled in silence.
Some recent research has shown that there’s a ceiling effect on music at around 145 bpm, where anything higher doesn’t seem to add much motivation, so keep that in mind when choosing your workout playlist. Here is how this breaks down for different genres:
Now if we team up these different “tempos” with the actual work-out we’re doing, we can be in much better sync and find the right beat for our exercise. If you match up the above with the graphic below it should be super easy to get into a good groove:
So in the same way that exercising makes us happier, it’s not surprising that music adds significantly to our work-out success.
Music Helps You Heal
A study from Austria’s General Hospital of Salzburg found that patients recovering from back surgery had increased rates of healing and reported less pain when music was incorporated into the standard rehabilitation process.
“Music is an important part of our physical and emotional well-being, ever since we were babies in our mother’s womb listening to her heartbeat and breathing rhythms.” – Lead clinical psychologist of Austria General, Franz Wendtner.
Music connects with the automatic nervous system (brain function, blood pressure and heartbeat) and the limbic system (feelings and emotions).
When slow music is played, the bodily reaction follows suit– the heart blow slows down and blood pressure drops. This causes the breath to slow, which helps release tension in the neck, shoulders, stomach and back.
Listening to slow or calming music on a regular basis can help our bodies relax, which over time, means less pain and faster recovery time.
Finnish researchers conducted a similar study, but with stroke patients. They found that if stroke patients listened to music for a couple of hours a day, their verbal memory and focused attention recovered better and they had a more positive mood than patients who did not listen to anything or who listened to audio books.
These findings have led to a clinical recommendation for stroke patients: everyday music listening during early stroke recovery offers a valuable addition to the patients’ care by providing an “individually targeted, easy-to-conduct and inexpensive means to facilitate cognitive and emotional recovery,” says Teppo Särkämö, author of the study.
With brain-imaging techniques, such as functional MRIs, music is increasingly being used in therapy for brain-related injuries and diseases. Brain scans have proven that music and motor control share circuits, so music can improve movement for those with Parkinson’s disease and for individuals recovering from a stroke. Neurologic music therapy should become part of rehabilitative care, according to this group of doctors. They believe that future findings may well indicate that music should be included on the list of therapies and rehabilitation for many disorders.
Music Reduces Stress and Eases Anxiety
Music has a unique link to our emotions, and research has found that it can be used as an extremely effective stress management tool.
Just like listening to slow music to calm the body, music can also have a relaxing effect on the mind. Researchers at Stanford University found that listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication. Since music is so widely available and inexpensive, it’s an easy stress reduction option.
HelpGuide.org, a nonprofit mental health and well-being organization encourages individuals to practice a healthy sonic diet. They suggest that “when choosing locations to eat, hold business meetings, or visit with friends, be conscious of the sound environment, including the noise level and type of music that is played. Loud noisy environments, as much as we try to ignore them, can contribute to unconscious stress and tension build-up without us even knowing it.”
Just like junk food increases stress in our system, a poor sonic or listening diet can do the same. Choose quieter environments and settings to prime your body to relax and recharge.
Making music can also release tension and relieve stress. Dana Marlowe, a technology accessibility consultant, gets relief from her daily work challenges in her toddler’s playroom:
I just jam out with his toys — the xylophone, the baby piano. I almost have ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ down.
Research has shown that casual music-making can short-circuit the stress response system and keep it from recurring or becoming chronic. WebMD tells us that “stress starts in the brain and then kicks off a chain reaction that switches on the stress response in every cell of our bodies. Over time, these cellular switches can get stuck in the ‘on’ position, leading to feelings of burnout, anger, or depression as well as a host of physical ailments.”
Music Improves Sleep Quality
According to one study conducted by Harmat, Takács and Bódizs, 94 students (ages 19 to 28) with sleep complaints were brought into the lab. Participants were split into 3 groups. The first group listened to classical music at bedtime for 45 minutes for 3 weeks. The second group listened to an audiobook at bedtime for 45 minutes for 3 weeks. The control group received no intervention.
Sleep quality and depressive symptoms were measured using the Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index and the Beck Depression Inventory respectively. The results?
The participants who listened to music showed statistically significant improvements in sleep quality and a decrease in depressive symptoms. There were no statistically significant results found for the audiobook or control group.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes claim that “an estimated 40 million Americans annually live with chronic sleep disorders, while 20 million more have trouble sleeping from time to time.”
In one meta-analysis of 10 randomized studies, researchers tracked 557 participants with chronic sleep disorders. They found that sleep quality was improved significantly with music and concluded that “music can assist in improving sleep quality of patients with acute and chronic sleep disorders.”
Music, Science and Ourselves
Happy/sad music affects how we see neutral faces
We can usually pick if a piece of music is particularly happy or sad, but this isn’t just a subjective idea that comes from how it makes us feel. In fact, our brains actually respond differently to happy and sad music.
Even short pieces of happy or sad music can affect us. One study showed that after hearing a short piece of music, participants were more likely to interpret a neutral expression as happy or sad, to match the tone of the music they heard. This also happened with other facial expressions, but was most notable for those that were close to neutral.
Something else that’s really interesting about how our emotions are affected by music is that there are two kind of emotions related to music: perceived emotions and felt emotions.
This means that sometimes we can understand the emotions of a piece of music without actually feeling them, which explains why some of us find listening to sad music enjoyable, rather than depressing.
Unlike in real life situations, we don’t feel any real threat or danger when listening to music, so we can perceive the related emotions without truly feeling them–almost like vicarious emotions.
Ambient noise can improve creativity
We all like to pump up the tunes when we’re powering through our to-do lists, right? But when it comes to creative work, loud music may not be the best option.
It turns out that a moderate noise level is the sweet spot for creativity. Even more than low noise levels, ambient noise apparently gets our creative juices flowing, and doesn’t put us off the way high levels of noise do.
The way this works is that moderate noise levels increase processing difficulty which promotes abstract processing, leading to higher creativity. In other words, when we struggle (just enough) to process things as we normally would, we resort to more creative approaches.
In high noise levels, however, our creative thinking is impaired because we’re overwhelmed and struggle to process information efficiently.
This is very similar to how temperature and lighting can affect our productivity, where paradoxically a slightly more crowded place can be beneficial.
Our music choices can predict our personality
In a study of couples who spent time getting to know each other, looking at each other’s top 10 favorite songs actually provided fairly reliable predictions as to the listener’s personality traits.
The study used five personality traits for the test: openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability.
Interestingly, some traits were more accurately predicted based on the person’s listening habits than others. For instance, openness to experience, extraversion, and emotional stability were the easiest to guess correctly. Conscientiousness, on the other hand, wasn’t obvious based on musical taste.
Here is also a break-down of how the different genres correspond to our personality, according to a study conducted at Heriot-Watt University:
To break it down, here is the connection they have found:
Blues fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle and at ease
Jazz fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing and at ease
Classical music fans have high self-esteem, are creative, introvert and at ease
Rap fans have high self-esteem and are outgoing
Opera fans have high self-esteem, are creative and gentle
Country and western fans are hardworking and outgoing
Reggae fans have high self-esteem, are creative, not hardworking, outgoing, gentle and at ease
Dance fans are creative and outgoing but not gentle
Indie fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard working, and not gentle
Bollywood fans are creative and outgoing
Rock/heavy metal fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard-working, not outgoing, gentle, and at ease
Chart pop fans have high self-esteem, are hardworking, outgoing and gentle, but are not creative and not at ease
Soul fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle, and at ease
Of course, generalizing based on this study is very hard. However looking at the science of introverts and extroverts, there is some clear overlap.
Music can significantly distract us while driving (contrary to common belief)
A study done on teenagers and young adults focused on how their driving is affected by music.
Drivers were tested while listening to their own choice of music, silence or “safe” music choices provided by the researchers. Of course, their own music was preferred, but it also proved to be more distracting: drivers made more mistakes and drove more aggressively when listening to their own choice of music.
Even more surprising: music provided by the researchers proved to be more beneficial than no music at all. It seems that unfamiliar, or uninteresting, music is best for safe driving.
Music training can significantly improve our motor and reasoning skills
We generally assume that learning a musical instrument can be beneficial for kids, but it’s actually useful in more ways than we might expect. One study showed that children who had three years or more musical instrument training performed better than those who didn’t learn an instrument in auditory discrimination abilities and fine motor skills.
They also tested better on vocabulary and nonverbal reasoning skills, which involve understanding and analyzing visual information, such as identifying relationships, similarities and differences between shapes and patterns.
These two areas in particular are quite removed from musical training as we imagine it, so it’s fascinating to see how learning to play an instrument can help kids develop such a wide variety of important skills.
Similar research shows this correlation for exercise and motor skills in the same way, which is also fascinating.
Classical music can improve visual attention
It’s not just kids that can benefit from musical training or exposure. Stroke patients in one small study showed improved visual attention while listening to classical music.
The study also tried white noise and silence to compare the results, and found that, like the driving study mentioned earlier, silence resulted in the worst scores.
Because this study was so small, the conclusions need to be explored further for validation, but I find it really interesting how music and noise can affect our other senses and abilities–in this case, vision.
One-sided phone calls are more distracting than normal conversations
Another study focused on noise, rather than music, showed that when it comes to being distracted by the conversations of others, phone calls where we can only hear one side of the conversation are the worst offenders.
After a survey showed that up to 82% of people find overhearing cellphone conversations annoying, Veronica Galván, a cognitive psychologist at the University of San Diego, decided to study why these are such a pain.
In the study, participants completed word puzzles while one half of them overheard one side of a mundane phone conversation in the background. The other half of the volunteers heard the entire conversation as it took place between two people in the room.
Those who heard the one-sided phone conversation found it more distracting than those who heard both people speaking. They also remembered more of the conversation, showing that it had grabbed their attention more than those who heard both sides and didn’t remember as much of the discussion.
The unpredictability of a one-sided conversation seems to be the cause of it grabbing our attention more. Hearing both sides of a conversation, on the other hand, gives us more context which makes it easier to tune out the distraction.
Then again, as we’ve explored before, getting distracted is often not such a bad things for various reasons.