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Music and the Brain

One of the first things I do when I get to school in the morning is blast some music while preparing my lessons. My students even know me as one of their teachers who often has music playing in the background during class. I have always been drawn to music, and have even pursued a master’s degree in music, but the effects of music for me are deeper than just an affinity or a passion. The profound effect music has on the brain, the psyche, the emotions, heck - the soul! - is so mind-bogglingly immense that scientists are STILL uncovering new ways humans are affected by it. What may, for me, have begun as a personal journey to understand my love of music has turned into a scientific endeavor to uncover the ways in which this love impacts my brain and my body, and yours, too, for that matter.

You may have heard some of the quips about music over the years that have become so common in our lexicon that they seem to be taken as fact. Even famous quotes like “Music is life itself,” “Music is the universal language of mankind,” and “Where words fail, music speaks.” These speak to this incredible importance society places on music, and its seeming universality across cultures.

Music has been sold as a treatment for pain, depression, anxiety, and even Alzheimer’s. So what’s the deal here? Is music really a wonder drug? Is it everything everyone is saying about it? Let’s take a brief look at the ins and outs of music and the brain and uncover the truth between the quips.

First things first, it doesn’t take a bunch of scientists to explain that music helps memory. Think back to how you were taught a language as a child, and you can probably still sing all the words to simple nursery rhymes and other songs from years and years ago with no gaps in memory. Ask yourself to recite a poem, on the other hand, and you’ll likely panic! So...why? Why is it that music aids memory? Well, first of all, scientists have found that music tends to reduce cortisol levels, the stress hormone, and increase dopamine levels, the reward chemical, in the brain. In a nutshell, music makes you feel less stressed, more relaxed, happy, and, in a sort of way, high on life. The fact that music impacts the brain in this way means that the body tends to want more of it, and also tends to remember the feeling long afterwards. It is this intrinsic corporal memory that helps us connect pieces of music to both people and events in our lives, often from eons ago, that can feel as pronounced a memory in our minds as something that happened today.

Another unique way music impacts us can be witnessed in group singing. Groups of people singing together, particularly if the singing is impromptu or spontaneous, can increase oxytocin in the brain, which helps us feel a bond for one another and is the same chemical released by nursing mothers with their infants. Oxytocin can also contribute to a relaxed sensation many feel when singing in groups, and even our breathing can synchronize with other singers during these intense moments of focus and connection through music.

You also may have heard of the Mozart Effect, a contradictory study that indicated that listening to the music of Mozart prior to completing a challenging task has a positive impact on the performance of said task. However, in many participants, no known effect was observed and therefore the results are not concrete. However, that being said, the scientists in the study all believed the findings indicated a general relationship between classical music and cognitive ability overall, and more research is being done to further this discussion. To this end, some scientists have studied the so-called “Vivaldi Effect” which indicates a similar relationship when participants listened to “Spring” from “The Four Seasons.” The participants in this study who listened to the piece appeared to have improved memory compared to those in the control group. To further test this hypothesis, I have turned solely to Mozart and Vivaldi for the purposes of writing this talk in order to improve my cognitive function, heighten my attention, and increase my memory capacity, but sadly, in my sample size of one...well, let’s just say the results are still out.

Aside from stress release and bonding, feeling joyful and helping anxiety and depression, music has also been shown to have a positive effect on both pain relief and brain injury recovery. In one study, participants were subjected to electric shocks while listening to music and without music. The shocks that occurred with music playing were registered as being less painful to recipients compared to those administered with no music playing. This was taken even further in a study related to fibromyalgia, a musculoskeletal autoimmune disease creating widespread muscle pain throughout the body. Patients in this study found that listening to music of their choice helped increase their mobility, likely due to the increase of dopamine in the brain, acting as a natural pain-reliever. While the applications for pain relief are profound, equally enticing are the applications for patients recovering from brain surgery and trauma. For example, in one study, there showed improvement in verbal recovery for 60% of stroke patients undergoing music therapy. Even patients with epilepsy, a disease characterized by frequent and unexpected seizures, found that seizures could be lessened in frequency with the use of music therapy. Clearly, the connection between music and the brain is stronger than mere enjoyment! No wonder it crosses all languages and timelines!

So, after all of this insight into music and the brain, what is the major takeaway? Well, that really depends on your perspective. Perhaps you are a person prone to stress or anxiety, and knowing the calming effect music may have might help you through the next moment of panic or frustration you’re having. Or perhaps you’re missing someone terribly, and want to share a memory with them through music, which I know happens to me when I think of my deceased grandma, Loretta, and hear Frank Sinatra, one of her favorite singers. I am instantly transported through time into her living room, seated on her decorated sofa, smelling her lovely, floral Jessica McClintock perfume with her face and voice as vivid in my mind as if it were yesterday, rather than a decade ago.

But one thing is for sure, we can do something, all of us, wherever you are, dear reader. One thing that can bond us, calm us, bring us joy: We can sing something - anything! - to ourselves, our children, to each other. And then, and only then, can we decide if all this oxytocin and dopamine business is true after all...or at least we can try.

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