If the scope of research on the physiological and physiological impacts of music is any indication, much is known — and yet unknown — about how music affects the human mind and body. “By better understanding what music is and where it comes from, we may be able to better understand our motives, fears, desires, memories, and even communication in the broadest sense,” according to neuroscientist, musician and author Dr. Daniel J. Levitin in his 2006 book This Is Your Brain on Music.
Levitin asks, “Is music listening more along the lines of eating when you’re hungry, and thus satisfying an urge? Or is it more like seeing a beautiful sunset or getting a backrub, which triggers sensory pleasure systems in the brain?” The truth is that the experience of listening to music is wildly variant. Yet, in recent years, scientists have made huge advances in understanding how the human brain processes music and how sound affects not just the mind by the body at large.
Here are just a few things science has made clear:
Music can actually make you smarter.
It’s no secret that music has a serious impact on a person’s brain activity — whether that’s how it engages different parts of the brain, how humans memorize tunes and lyrics or how different types of melodies and rhythms can illicit different emotional responses. It’s even been reported that ambient noise, played at a moderate volume, can encourage creativity, and that listening to music can help repair brain damage.
Yet the news is even better for musicians, particularly those who begin playing an instrument at an early age. According to some studies, music learning can encourage the development of stronger vocabularies and a better handle on nonverbal reasoning. Speaking to News in Health, Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Dr. Gottfried Schlaug even says that the nerve makeup of musicians differs from nonmusicians, citing studies that musicians’ minds have more bundles of nerves bridging the left side of the braid to the right.
“When you make music, it engages many different areas of the brain, including visual, auditory and motor areas,” Schlaug told News in Health. “That’s why music-making is also of potential interest in treating neurologic disorders.”
Sad music doesn’t necessarily make us sad.
According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2013, sad music may not make you breakdown in tears. The findings suggest that music can spark two types of emotional responses — perceived emotion and felt emotion. That means that though sad music is recognizably sad to many, experiencing it is not an emotionally darkening experience.
After conducting a survey of 44 participants, “The results revealed that the sad music was perceived to be more tragic, whereas the actual experiences of the participants listening to the sad music induced them to feel more romantic, more blithe, and less tragic emotions than they actually perceived with respect to the same music,” reads the study. “Thus, the participants experienced ambivalent emotions when they listened to the sad music.”
Music is thought to have positive medicinal effects.
Music has long been used in healing rituals around the world, and science suggests there’s a good reason that’s been the case. Plato suggested using music to treat anxiety, explained Dawn Kent in an 2006 researched thesis for Harvard University titled “The Effect of Music on the Human Body and Mind,” while Aristotle categorized music as a therapeutic tool, particularly to treat those with volatile emotions. And in ancient Greece, Apollo ruled both music and healing.
“Physiologically, music has a distinct effect on many biological processes,” according to Kent. “It inhibits the occurrence of fatigue, as well as changes the pulse and respiration rates, external blood pressure levels, and psychogalvanic effect.”
As proof, Kent points to Michelle Lefevre’s 2004 book, Playing With Sound: The Therapeutic Use of Music in Direct Work With Children, which argues that high pitched tones and can sometimes lead to feelings of panic and increased anxiety.
One theory even introduces something called the “Mozart Effect,” and a study that builds on the theory found that the infamous composer’s “Piano Sonata in D Major” caused decreased epilepsy in patients — a finding that even extended to patients in comas.
Mood music is a thing.
“Music can increase one’s libido,” said Curtis Levang, a clinical psychologist and marriage and family therapist, Everyday Health reported. And speaking to the publication, urologist Dr. Y. Mark Hong explained that music and sex are alike, in that both can be emotionally-charged experiences. Therefore, he said, it’s possible music can help men with low testosterone up their sex drives, as listening to music can elevate serotonin levels in a person’s body.
And it’s even possible that music can help single folks score a date. According to a study carried out by researchers in France, single women who had listened to romantic music were more likely to hand out their phone numbers than those participants who had listened to neutral music prior to be asked out.
Music can help you go the distance.
Several studies have shown that music can boost endurance and help us use energy more efficiently during exercise. One 2012 study called “Let’s Get Physical: The Psychology of Effective Workout Music” points to findings that say cyclists who peddled along to music used 7% less oxygen than those who didn’t couple their ride with music to match their pace. According the the study, which was published in Scientific America, a song’s beats per minute (bpm) has an effect on motivation — though that’s true only up to a certain threshold.
“The most recent research suggests that a ceiling effect occurs around 145 bpm: anything higher does not seem to contribute much additional motivation,” according to the study. “On occasion, the speed and flow of the lyrics supersede the underlying beat: some people work out to rap songs, for example, with dense, swiftly spoken lyrics overlaid on a relatively mellow melody.“
For reference, Bruce Springsteen’s "Born to Run,” Spoon’s “Don’t Make Me a Target” and the Beach Boys’ “Do You Wanna Dance” all clock in at 147 bpm.
Spotify has come to similar conclusions, and last year debuted Spotify Running in response to those findings, adding tech to its platform that tracks a runner’s pace and curates a playlist of songs that match that pace.
Music can help you adjust that attitude.
According research conducted at the University of Missouri, a team of scientists have confirmed what has perhaps been long-suspected: Music is a mood booster.
“Our work provides support for what many people already do — listen to music to improve their moods,” the study’s lead author, Yuna Ferguson, said in a press release, Healtline reports. “Although pursuing personal happiness may be thought of as a self-centered venture, research suggests that happiness relates to a higher probability of socially beneficial behavior, better physical health, higher income, and greater relationship satisfaction.”
Singing in the shower may actually be good for you.
Writing for Jweekly, Dr. Jerry Saliman argued that there are health benefits to singing out loud — particularly for the elderly.
“Studies have shown that singing can improve the brain functionality of seniors suffering from conditions such as aphasia and Parkinson’s disease,” Saliman writes. “In addition, many seniors live alone, are limited in mobility due to chronic conditions such as arthritis, and are on budgets; finding easy and affordable activities that keep them engaged and connected is beneficial for their emotional well-being.”
Saliman adds that singing has also been found to improve the respiration health and functionality of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and that patients with COPD who sing report less feelings of breathlessness.