Music and the brain

From time immemorial, man has developed the ability to produce music by inventing musical instruments. We all like some form of music whether it be classical, hip-hop or even a musical theatre. Music helps us to relax. As we listen, we even start humming or repeating the lyrics.

However, a study published in Scientific Reports by Jens Madsen among other researchers found that repeated exposure to the same music decreases a listener’s engagement. On the other hand, when a new or unfamiliar music is played, the listener tends to become more engaged. They came to this conclusion by studying synchronization of brain waves in a group of 60 graduate and undergraduate students from City College of New York and University of Arkansas.

“What is so cool about this, is that by measuring people’s brainwaves we can study how people feel about music and what makes it so special,” said Madsen.

Many research works have shown that music has a powerful effect on brain functions and indirectly on our health. Even in Greek mythology Apollo, one of the Twelve Olympians is the god of medicine, music, poetry, archery and the sun. What does the combination of health and music tell us? Music affects many parts of our brain and their functions.

Neuroscientist Kiminobu Sugaya and world-renowned violinist Ayako Yonetami have been teaching how music helps to reduce stress, depression as well as improve cognitive and motor skills. They have also shown that music can help those suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“Usually in the late stages, Alzheimer’s patients are unresponsive,” Sugaya said. “But once you put on the headphones that play their favorite music, their eyes light up. They start moving and sometimes singing. The effect lasts maybe 10 minutes or so even after you turn off the music.”

Sugaya also mentioned that children have more neurons than adults and are therefore, able to learn language and music faster than adults.

“If you learn music as a child, your brain becomes designed for music,” he said.

This happens because music activates many chemical reactions in our brain which gives many positive results. Of course that also depends on the type of music you like but the effects remain the same.

Music triggers the production of opioids, which are the body’s natural pain relievers. Thus, it reduces pain and increases functional mobility. It also reduces stress by lowering cortisol levels, which is released during stress.

Surprisingly, music also helps with memory loss. Neurologist Oliver Sacks had commented on this, “Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory. It brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.”

Studies have shown that patients suffering from seizures and brain injury respond differently from normal people. Christine Charyton of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center explained that “Persons with epilepsy synchronize before a seizure. However, in our study, patients with epilepsy synchronized to the music without having a seizure. By listening to music, many patients reported that they felt relaxed.”

The relaxation of the brain allows many other positive behavior and functions. It can make you better in communication, boost your immune system, assist in repairing brain damage and tap into primal fear. We unintentionally get carried away by music, especially the ones we like. Therefore, we can appreciate that music isn’t just for the sake of playing instruments but also to help us have a less stress free life.


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