Music: the superpower in your pocket


1 July 2020

It’s a big claim, but think about all the times of need you have turned to music ... in times of heartbreak, teenage angst, weddings, funerals, setting the scene for a party (at the beginning and at the end of the night), for graduations, for religious services, and on and on.

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Music as a social glue

Music has always been the glue that binds us, from mothers singing and rocking babies, to rhythms punctuating storytelling around a campfire, to political rallies, to war songs propelling the army forward.

In fact, I don’t know how I would have found my way through

  • teenage years without having my mood matched in song
  • the early years of parenting without the soothing rhythm, focus and company of songs through the night
  • even the best times, without the accompanying soundtrack connecting me with my people and memories along the way.

Music connects us to our emotions, our motivations and to others

The fact that we have these curated playlists throughout our lives, made to match the highpoints and the low points, show that we know loud and clear that music impacts us. And research in the areas of music psychology, music therapy and music medicine concurs, demonstrating music’s capacity to:

A brief overview of music & the brain

Through the neuroscience research boom over the last couple of decades, we have been able to begin to make sense of the way music is processed in our brains and bodies. However, looking into and understanding the psychology and physiology of how music impacts us is a big undertaking. There is a reason that it takes a masters degree to become a Registered Music Therapist!

Let’s have a brief look at what is involved...

For a start, music is processed by many different parts of the brain. The video below gives a brief overview - it’s under 5 minutes and well worth a watch for a quick summary:

Music creates fireworks in the brain

You can also find an interactive map of the brain on music here.

On a structural level,we know that making and listening to music involves both hemispheres of the brain & the simultaneous use of multiple parts of the brain. We also know that the brain areas activated by music process other functions, and that music builds new neural pathways.

Further, research demonstrates music’s capacity to organise and regulate blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, motor functioning and cerebral blood flow. This means that music can interact with our physiology to slow down or accelerate our breathing, our pulse and our movement. This helps to explain how music helps us to relax or get us moving at the gym.

If chosen carefully, and with intention, we can also use music to improve our health and wellbeing. For example, we can use music to reduce our heart rate if we are experiencing anxiety.

Music impacts our neurochemistry

As summarised by these psychology researchers, listening to, or playing music, interacts with levels of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, cortisol, human growth hormone, & immunoglobulin. In other words, music activates some of the key neurotransmitters and neuropeptides that are involved in:

  • making us feel good and motivated
  • helping us to build trust and connection with others
  • reducing stress
  • promoting healthy growth and metabolism and
  • building our immune response.

Not bad!

The need for caution

Whilst we can use music to boost our mood and give us energy, it can also have a detrimental effect on us. There are times when music may exacerbate a low mood or a tendency to ruminate - let’s not forget the power of music to incite hate. After all, music has been used throughout time to galvanise soldiers going into battle.

Some considerations, offered by researchers at the University of Melbourne’s National Music Therapy Research Unit, include

  • assessing whether or not music listening is actually supporting wellbeing or intensifying low mood states (the Healthy/Unhealthy Uses of Music Scale can help clinicians assess whether or not music listening is supportive)
  • The Australian Music Therapy Association have this great resource for assessing healthy use of music in times of anxiety
  • the use of music in relation to violence and aggression (see here if you would like to explore this further).

Music imprints itself in the brain deeper than any other human experience. Music evokes emotion and emotion can bring with it memory. Music brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.

Dr Oliver Sacks

Related Resources

Header image: Unsplash