Music is often viewed as an enjoyable form of entertainment, but a growing body of scientific and sociological research is proving how music enhances the strength of our brain’s neural pathways and helps us foster deep social bonds.
One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.
The legendary Bob Marley sang this lyric in 1971 and it has been repeated by music lovers countless times ever since.
What is it about music that moves us, literally and figuratively? How can the sound of a few notes rouse emotions we thought had been long buried while helping us feel closer to others? Why are melodies, like languages, often preserved in the minds of patients living with memory loss?
Studies in neurology, psychology, and sociology have set out in pursuit of answers to these questions. Many suggest that it is music’s ability to activate an astounding number of regions and networks in the brain – those responsible for thinking, processing, learning, and movement – that makes it an invaluable experience for human beings.
Scientists are now able to visualise the activation that takes place in our brains thanks to help from technology, but it’s clear that the power of music transcends beyond its neurological benefits. It has the ability to connect people of all cultures, ethnicities, and beliefs through a shared interest, helping us to find a common ground to enjoy and let go.
Let’s unpack how exactly music can do this, starting with how it ignites our brain’s neural pathways to how it improves our mental health and strengthens our social bonds.
If listening to a certain song feels like it scratches an itch in your brain, it’s because (in a way) it is.
Music has a profound impact on our neurology and the act of listening to it results in activation of some of the ‘broadest and most diverse networks of the brain’ according to Harvard Health Studies.
It not only triggers activation of the brain’s auditory cortex near our ears, but forms neural connections to wider areas, including those responsible for emotional regulation (amygdala), motor function (cerebellum), and memory (hippocampus).
As a result of this discovery, scientific studies postulate that music is able to sharpen our cognitive skills. The ‘Mozart effect’ suggests that listening to classical music, particularly compositions by Mozart, temporarily enhances spatial-temporal reasoning and problem-solving abilities.
Such findings emphasise music’s potential to maintain and boost mental agility, keeping our brains healthy, active, and sharp.
Music and mental health
In a world where the rhythm of life can often be chaotic and demanding, music has emerged as a soothing balm for the minds of many.
Beyond mere auditory pleasure, music offers a diverse range of mental health benefits that resonate with individuals seeking solace and serenity. Interestingly, studies have shown that listening to sad music when in a low mood can help us feel understood, loved, and uplifted.
By triggering memories and feelings of nostalgia, many individuals are met with additional feelings of gratitude for their own positive life experiences when hearing songs they recognise.
In addition, stimulation that occurs while listening to the rhythmic and repetitive nature of music – from wide-ranging chords to familiar lyrics – is known to contribute to stress reduction and emotional equilibrium.
This makes music a powerful antidote to the relentless cacophony of the modern world, allowing individuals to find their own internal harmony.
Thanks to its mood-boosting characteristics, many studies claim that music has the potential to be a ‘very addictive drug,’ as it activates the area of our brain that seeks pleasure and reward – the nucleus accumbens – releasing a dopamine rush similar to that of cocaine.
It makes sense then, that music therapy has become a field attracting widespread recognition and value.
The practice continues to promote music as a tool for alleviating anxiety and depression, helping to maintain speech and language in the elderly, and enhancing the quality of life of both patients and their carers.
For these reasons, the field deploys music-listening techniques to aid in the rehabilitation of stroke survivors and when providing care for Alzheimer’s patients.
It’s clear that music not only enhances cognitive functions and emotional resonance but also exerts tangible effects on our physiological well-being. This wealth of research reinforces the idea that music is not merely a form of entertainment, it is a powerful tool for nurturing and enriching the human mind.
Music and social relationships
Throughout history and across cultures, music has been a powerful tool for establishing, preserving, and celebrating cultural identities.
Even today, music is able to foster diverse communities through festivals and concerts, where like-minded individuals from around the world unite in one location to share their common love for music.
At these events, individuals can express a wide range of emotions, from joy to sorrow. Tapping into this emotional outlet can be particularly therapeutic, helping people process their feelings and connect with others who share similar experiences. This sees festivals become a foundation for forming deep social connections with one another.
It’s no surprise that many festival-goers report feeling a sense of unity and belonging at such events.
One paperwrites: ‘If it is a language, music is a language of feeling. Musical rhythms are life rhythms. Music with tensions, resolutions, crescendos and diminuendos, major and minor keys, delays and silent interludes, with a temporal unfolding of events, does not present us with a logical language, but instead reveals the nature of feelings with a detail and truth that language cannot approach.’
In recent years, our favourite streaming services have shown how much can be a tool for relationship building and communication. They continue to launch features that encourage us to connect with others using music as our voice.
A great example of how music platforms have set out to encourage social listening is Spotify’s ‘Blend’ feature, which allows users to generate a playlist with friends based on their combined music taste.
If music is a language, it is a universal one indeed. Whether it’s a drum beating around a campfire, a choir singing in unison inside a church, or a digital playlist shared over WhatsApp by a friend – music is an important part of the human experience.
Its wide-ranging benefits, from the mental, physical, emotional, and social, seem almost limitless.
I’m Jessica (She/Her). Originally from Bermuda, I moved to London to get a Master’s degree in Media & Communications and now write for Thred to spread the word about positive social change, specifically ocean health and marine conservation. You can also find me dipping my toes into other subjects like pop culture, health, wellness, style, and beauty. Follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn and drop me some ideas/feedback via email.
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