“My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.”
You don’t need to be told that music is powerful. If you’re like most people, you have experienced music’s effects first-hand: you’ve danced to an incredible beat, bonded with others over a favorite song, and used the power of melody to soothe your moods and ease your mind. Sound, music, vibration: they’re such a huge part of our everyday life that we can forget their incredible potency. Let’s explore some of the incredible ways music affects your brain – and how you can harness its power to improve your life.
Music Develops Connections in Physical Activity
According to a recent study from the University of Edinburgh, listening to music while doing physical activities “significantly develops” key connections in the brain. Researchers found that music, paired with physical activity, increases the connectivity of white matter pathways that link your motor (movement) functions with auditory cues. For researchers, this is an exciting development. By harnessing these connections, researchers might be able to help people — especially those in rehabilitation — to link physical activity to music.
Many of us are already aware of how music is connected with physicality. Humans have used music in celebratory rituals and dances throughout history. When it comes to inspiring yourself to, say, commit to exercising on a daily basis, you can use music to your advantage. Is there a specific type of music that you already connect to certain physical activities? Are there certain styles that will inspire you to reach new heights at the gym, or push you to run that extra mile on the track?
Curating Playlists Can Help Curate Your Mood
If you’ve ever turned to music when you’re feeling down, lonely, or anxious, then you’re not alone. There’s an entire field of counseling devoted to the psychological benefits of music. Music therapy uses the power of song and music to impact people’s emotional and cognitive health.
In your day-to-day life, you can consciously explore the way certain music impacts your mood and well-being. Think about your daily routine: when do you feel most inspired? When does your motivation dip off? Do you have a tendency to feel a little lull in the afternoon, when you’d rather be getting work done? Use this information to curate a playlist to support your emotions and mood. Upbeat, tranquil, contemplative, athletic, happy, romantic – you can create a playlist for any state of mind, and use it to help you achieve your goals.
Remember that you are unique when it comes to music. What makes someone else feel upbeat could trigger a sad response for you. When it comes to using music to support your mood, feel free to tailor every aspect of the experience to your needs.
Research Shows that Music Increases Divergent Thinking & Creativity
Scientists have long been fascinated in the ways music can increase “divergent thinking” in humans. Divergent thinking describes thought processes that rely on quick and free-form techniques like brainstorming to create unique solutions to problems. One 2017 study demonstrated that participants who listened to “happy” music showed more creativity in divergent thinking than those who worked without music.
This study demonstrates what many of us have found in our daily lives—that music can be used to increase creative thinking. Though the study used classical and “happy” music, these specifics can certainly vary from person to person. When you think about bursts of creativity in your life, can you connect those moments to listening to a specific type of music? Do you think you could harness that power to supercharge your next brainstorming session or creative endeavor?
The Link Between Brainwaves and Music
Music and sound can actually impact your brainwaves. This is the concept behind binaural beats, which work by triggering different frequencies in your brain. When you listen to this type of music using headphones, the differing frequencies sent to each ear interact to form one prevailing frequency.
But how does this work? Basically, music and sound can modify your brainwaves. There are five frequencies of brain waves – Alpha, Theta, Beta, Gamma, and Delta —and triggering each one can provoke a different response in your consciousness. For example, delta waves are associated with deep, dreamless sleep. Beta waves are associated with activities of daily life including focused mental activity and alertness. By choosing music that engages different brainwaves, we can tap into relaxation, focus, meditation, and other states of being.
Music Triggers the Neurotransmitter Dopamine
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers of your brain. One of the well-studied of these is dopamine, which is triggered by pleasurable things like food, sex, and drugs. Responsible for controlling human beings’ responses to rewards and pleasure, dopamine helps us navigate the world functionally. Interestingly, researchers have found that dopamine release is also triggered by the anticipation of music.
In the study, level of dopamine production was related to how pleasurable the music was. The more pleasurable the music, the more dopamine was released. This powerful link between music and dopamine production shows just how fundamentally music impacts our brains. We can use this knowledge to our advantage by consciously recognizing the power of music to impact our neurotransmitters – and by choosing music that elicits a pleasurable response.
Community, Empathy, and Music
Did you know that a fetus can recognize a song (and the singer) in utero by around 25 to 26 weeks old? And that researchers have found that people with high empathy have brains that are more hardwired to enjoy music? These examples demonstrate the powerful communal properties of music and sound: even before we’ve been born, we’re fine-tuned to connect music with our human community. And throughout the process of our lives, music is linked to our ability to empathize.
All throughout the modern world, you can see the incredible power of music to bring people together. This festival had this many people; this concert had this many people. Thousands of bodies swaying in unison to the same song; thousands of mouths singing the same words together. Music has an undeniable power to bring different people together, to transcend differences and boundaries.
We might think of music first and foremost as entertainment; and though there’s no denying that music adds joy and meaning to our everyday lives, it can also surprise us with its powerful impacts on the brain. From strengthening neural connections to improving focus through triggering brain waves, music has an incredible ability to change our brains.
Everything is more powerful when used with intention—and by understanding the brain-changing power of music, you can make intentional and conscious changes to allow this ancient art form to change your life.