Humans are naturally impacted by their environment and the sensory experiences that accompany them. Perhaps one of the most universally understood examples of this is the experiences we have when listening to music.
Universal experiences are hard to come by in science and in life, but with new technology allowing us to examine our brains like never before, researchers are starting to pose questions about how music affects our brains.
An Essential Part of the Human Experience
For as long as humans have walked the earth, every culture or society has had its own tastes, style and methods of creating and consuming music. It’s only natural then that music would come to play a vital part in our lives, from shaping our identities to stimulating our minds in ways that no other form of stimulation can, be it art, reading, playing games or socializing.
Music plays a well-documented role in child development from the time we are still in our mother’s womb into young adulthood and beyond. It’s something that shapes many of our early experiences and engages our imaginations.
Whether it is listening to music or playing it, our relationship to the tunes we love has the power to modulate our levels of serotonin, epinephrine, dopamine and oxytocin, even prolactin in mothers. Music creates feelings of pleasure and other emotional responses that are powerful on a physiological level. How our brains respond to music is not centralized to a specific area, varies based on tastes, musical training and the listener’s experience.
How Does the Brain Process Music?
Beyond the process of how the brain receives and perceives sounds from the inner ear, equally important to understanding the relationship between the brain and music is how the brain then reacts to it.
For many years, scientists believed that music and language were processed by the brain in entirely different ways, but more recent research has revealed that the two actually have some important characteristics in common. This is because each is its own form of communication and each abides by a set of rules, particularly words in communication and notes in music, that dictates how elements are combined to form larger ideas or themes.
It’s also mathematical in nature, meaning it’s structured and requires the brain to perform various processes to make sense of what its hearing.
The frontal lobe is engaged in understanding these aspects of both music and communication. But if we look at the varying components of rhythm that we perceive, such as tone, timbre, melody, rhythm and harmony, we see different areas of the brain engaging with the stimuli.
For example, rhythm, varies in the part of the brain it is processed in based on the listener’s intent. When the listener is attempting discern what makes up a rhythm, the right temporal lobe is engaged. When they are taking in rhythm in shorter or less focused bursts, the left temporal lobe is involved. Harmony, along with timbre, is primarily a right temporal lobe function.
Interestingly, how the brain perceives these things and the areas of the brain used in deciphering them can change significantly with even a little bit of musical training. Studies suggest that music is a language of feeling, therefore musical training only makes us more sensitive to its emotional highs and lows it has to offer, and in doing so, engages our brains in new ways than when we have no musical understanding.
The Impact of Music
According to an article published in Trends in Cognitive Science, music also engages neurochemical systems that impact immunity and the perception of stress, arousal, motivation, reward and pleasure.
Over the years, a variety of studies have unearthed different impacts music has on the brain. Listening to music has shown the potential to reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and pain. It can improve sleep quality, mood, memory and alertness. It can also reduce seizures and risk of seizures in epileptic patients.
Listening to and composing music have also been shown to increase neuroplasticity in patients who have suffered strokes or traumatic brain injuries and those who have required brain surgery. Therapies that use music are effective in rebuilding neuro pathways for the processing of music as well as creating new ones.
While the relationship between the brain and music is yet to be completely understood or mapped out, there is enough scientific research to suggest that music is not only good for the brain, but essential to brain health and an important part of what it means to be human.