The Brain and Music: How Music Affects the Brain

woman taking advantage of how music affects the brain

The effects of music on human behaviour are amazing. Listening to extraordinary pieces of music can give us goosebumps. Joyful music can have the power to make us dance or lift our mood. Certain songs evoke memories. Music can have profound effects on our mood, behaviour and health, and could even affect how we perceive time. The average American spent four and a half hours per day listening to music in 2017, which shows how important music is to us. This article explains how music affects the brain and how to get the most benefits out of your favourite tunes. 

What Parts of the Brain Are Stimulated by Music?

In what part of the brain is music processed, and what happens to your brain when you listen to music?

A common belief in the past was that there was one area or one hemisphere in the brain solely responsible for processing music. However, using advanced imaging tools, neuroscientists have discovered that nearly every area of the brain plays a part when we perceive music. Here are some examples of how different parts of the brain process music: 

  • Around fifty per cent of us will get goosebumps when listening to certain music. One theory is that some music (such as high tones that could be mistaken for screams) will cause the amygdala to produce an instinctive fear response. Goosebumps and raised alertness are part of that response. Almost immediately, our rationality takes over when we understand that we are not in danger, and we get a sensation of joy because of dopamine release combined with higher awareness.
  • Wernicke’s area is responsible for language comprehension - also when listening to music, as long as it contains lyrics.  
  • The hippocampus, which creates our long-term memories, is activated when we listen to music. This might be part of the reason why music is beneficial to people with Alzheimer’s.

Top 30 Effects of Music on the Brain

Whether it is creating music or listening to music performed by others, researchers have documented the psychological effects of music on the brain.

The top 30 benefits of music on the brain are: 

  1. It reduces stress. Listening to music reduces the level of the stress hormone cortisol. By listening to the music you enjoy, you can calm the mind and reduce anxiety. 
  2. It helps with depression. If used correctly, music can help to suppress the symptoms of depression and associated feelings of anxiety. Both creating and listening to music can suppress symptoms of depression.
  3. It helps people sleep. When you listen to calm music, your heart rate and respiratory rate will slow down. This helps you get ready for a resting state, which makes it easier to fall asleep. Listening to music before bedtime could also be beneficial to those with sleep disorders.
  4. It helps with vascular health. Music could contribute to heart rate and blood pressure returning to normal levels after exercise and increase blood flow by relaxing the arteries. 
  5. It helps with diet. Slow, gentle background music can make us eat less and enjoy the food more. This mainly works through slowing down the pace at which we eat so that our brain gets time to catch up with how much we have eaten.
  6. It helps with exercise. Listening to music helps people ignore pain and fatigue and improves endurance while exercising. Picking the right music sets a pace for the body to match and makes you move. Choose music you like that also feels suitable for the exercises you are doing.
  7. It helps with stroke victims. By incorporating music in the rehabilitation of stroke patients, researchers found it helped with the recovery of motor functions, improved mood and reduced feelings of fatigue. 
  8. It aids in the development of children. Music helps children to develop motor and social-emotional skills and helps them understand and speak a language at an earlier age.
  9. It keeps your mind sharp. Learning to play an instrument can have long-term beneficial effects on the mind, especially in terms of cognition and listening skills. 
  10. It reduces acute pain. Music serves as a distraction from pain and there are shared pathways for music enjoyment and pain processing.
  11. It improves the immune system. Listening to music could boost the immune system by causing the body to increase the production of immunoglobulin A and natural killer cells. 
  12. It improves hearing. Those who are trained in playing instruments develop the ability to distinguish between different types of sounds both more accurately and more quickly. Musicians are also able to remain focused on tasks that involve listening compared to nonmusicians. 
  13. It strengthens you emotionally. Music could improve self-esteem and quality of life and thereby strengthen emotional resilience.
  14. It enhances focus. Putting on a pair of headphones and playing music we enjoy can help block out distractions from the outside world. Although it does not work for everyone and not for every type of task, listening to music can enhance focus, especially if there are no lyrics.
  15. It enhances creativity. Music can put you in a relaxed state, which is a prerequisite for creativity or divergent thinking. To get into the ideal state, you could choose some happy music which makes you feel positive and energized. 
  16. It soothes premature babies. Music and lullabies may be beneficial to the breathing, heart rate, sleep and feeding of prematurely born babies.
  17. It improves memory. Music helps us create new memories and retrieve old ones. Often, a song will bring back memories of an emotional or challenging event we went through in the past. 
  18. It can ease road rage. Mellow or downbeat music can relax drivers and keep them from making risky decisions. Drivers should be cautious about the music they play in the car, however, because upbeat or aggressive music can have the opposite effect by distracting the driver or making them drive faster.
  19. It assists the ageing brain. Listening to music is analogous to giving your whole brain a work-out. Music is also used in Alzheimer’s therapies to help people recall seemingly lost memories.
  20. It activates the pleasure system. Listening to music we enjoy activates the pleasure system and causes the release of dopamine. Music could even become an addiction. 
  21. It helps children with autism spectrum disorders. In a study, children with autism were put through 8-12 weeks of music therapy with instruments, songs and rhythmic cues. The researchers found that those who completed the music therapy had improved social communication with their parents and improved family quality of life. They also used neuroimaging tools and found that brain connectivity was improved after the therapy program.  
  22. It enhances tastes. There is a connection between sound and taste. By listening to certain types of music, we can enhance taste while eating or drinking. High-pitch sounds can help bring out the sweetness of a dessert, and low-pitch sounds make sour foods taste sourer.
  23. It raises IQ and academic performance. A study showed that children who were learning to play instruments had higher verbal abilities and nonverbal reasoning, which are both tied to IQ and academic performance. 
  24. It boosts motivation. Music can boost the motivation to complete difficult tasks and increase the motivation to learn.
  25. It causes musical goosebumps. Around half of the population will experience frisson or the chills from certain types of music.
  26. It changes how you perceive time. Music can help us get through boring or repetitive tasks. When people listen to music while waiting, they tend to feel that the waiting time is shorter compared to if there is no music. It also fills space that would be perceived as an awkward, uncomfortable silence if there were no music.
  27. It wakes up your brain. You can energize your mind by listening to music. In general, music increases beta wave amplitudes, which helps with daily activities. The greatest effect was from music with a high number of beats per minute. Playing fast-paced music in the morning could help get your brain into an active state more quickly.  
  28. It improves your mood. If we desire to feel a certain way, listening to music helps feel that way. It is the combination of listening to music and its intended effect that helps us boost our mood. There is also another mechanism where expectation becomes reality: The brain releases the feel-good hormone dopamine while we listen to music we enjoy. Researchers found that dopamine was released before reaching the most portions of a song we enjoyed the most. In other words, the mind released dopamine in anticipation of enjoyable stimuli. 
  29. It provides comfort. Music therapy is often used to provide comfort for patients undergoing various treatments and procedures.
  30. It increases neurological productivity: By listening to music you enjoy and are familiar with, you might see increased productivity in your work or studies. However, it is important to be engaged by the music - having it on in the background is not enough. Researchers theorize that music might not directly impact productivity by itself, but instead work by impacting our emotions, which helps us be more productive.

Why Some People Cannot Listen to Music While Working or Studying

Listening to music can improve focus and motivation. However, some people find their productivity dropping instead. 

This happens when the additional bandwidth dedicated to processing the music outweighs its positive effects on the brain.

Our brain uses extra processing power to make sense of music that is new to us. Your brain will recognize a song after hearing it a couple of times, and you will already know what to expect in terms of rhythm and variations throughout the piece of music.  

To maximize the productivity benefits of music, you should pick some music you enjoy (but not so much that it makes you dance) and are familiar with, and it should be organized in a playlist without interruptions from advertisements. The volume should be set to a comfortable level. If it is too loud, it could be distracting and damage your hearing. Often, people find that instrumental or classical music or songs in foreign languages give the greatest concentration boost. 

In some cases, the interactions between music and the brain are negative. Some people are unable to listen to music while working or studying even knowing the above tips. This lack of focus while music is playing could be caused by the inability of the brain to habituate. Habituation is a term used to describe how our brain learns to recognize stimuli and ignore it. It is similar to how after getting dressed in the morning, most people forget about the fact that they are wearing clothes because the brain ignores those impulses. In some rare cases, people get sensory overloading from music and remain distracted despite their best efforts at focusing.

How People with Hearing Loss Hear Music

When people get a hearing loss, they may no longer hear music the same way they used to. With a hearing loss, music can sound less rich and could be almost unrecognizable from how you heard it when you were younger. This can feel disappointing and cause people to give up listening to music. 

Knowing how music affects us in a wide range of ways, and how important music is to most people, it is clear that reduced enjoyment of music is one of the main negative impacts of hearing loss.

Hearing devices - especially hearing aids and smart personal sound amplifiers with Bluetooth - could help. They personalise the music to let people hear music the way it should sound. Kite is a smart personal sound amplifier which allows you to easily stream rich, personalised music from both computers, televisions and Android and iOS smartphones using Bluetooth.

Conclusion

When we hear music, it activates, stimulates and exercises our entire brain. 

With the countless benefits of listening to music, it is no wonder how important (or even addicting) music has become to us.

By being aware of how music affects the brain, we can better achieve our intended benefits. 

Just remember not to play too loudly or for too long, because a hearing loss could take away your ability to enjoy music without a hearing device.

About Incus

Incus has redefined hearing devices by combining the power of traditional hearing aids with the convenience and accessibility of consumer electronics products.

Through continuous hearing technology innovation, Incus empowers people to stay connected with family, friends and the world.

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