The story of life flows with the tones of the world; crowded rooms, whispering breezes, friendly words and raucous laughter, are all sounds that contribute to the pleasure of living and the memories that stick with us. But music is more than just the sounds of everyday; it’s the binding to our storybooks. It fills what otherwise might be silence; it accompanies us through our days. Music is everywhere! We carry it with us in our pockets. We find it when we gather together. We even sometimes produce it ourselves in the shower. As Plato put it;
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”
Were the philosopher alive today, he would marvel at the distance we gone to support and extend his statement. Because there is ample evidence to suggest that music can benefit the body as well as the mind, he might want to add “music gives constitution to the body” into his list of benefits as well. In any case, Plato was quite right about the effect that music can have on our overall well-being. Scientists have been studying the subject for at least the last century and here I am going to examine some (but not all) of the surprising benefits music can have for our health.
But keep this in mind, this is only science; the exact effects of music on the mind and body are still scientific mysteries and what I am about to share with you are just bits and pieces of this intricate puzzle. In science, conclusions are not facts and what one study says may be discounted latter by another study with better methodology or better controls. Music in particular is extremely difficult to control and there are so many factors to consider, such as components of the music itself (volume, tempo, genre), individual reactions to music (familiarity, memories, emotional response), or conditions when the music is played (with others, alone, during exercise), that most studies do not even get close to providing adequate controls!
With this in mind enjoy the following findings for what it is, a limited but surprising expansive window into what science has suggested so far about music and the human experience.
Dopamine system: A system of areas in the brain that are hypothesized to play a part in reward-based incentive learning (that is, learning to make choices that lead to a reward). This system also plays a large role in movement control.
Opioid System: A system of areas of the brain that are affected by opioids such as opium, morphine and heroin (all highly addictive drugs that reduce pain and cause euphoria). When not activated by drugs, this system helps us process pain.
Music for pleasure: There is question that most people find music pleasurable. Why else would we listen to it? Scientists have been trying to understand the cause of this pleasure for a while and they have found some interesting results.
- The research: Brain imaging studies have suggested that listening to music activates many areas of the brain related to reward (or pleasure), including dopamine and opioid systems of the brain. 3 One interesting finding is that when people are given a drug that counteracts the effects of opioids, responses to music that are normally considered pleasurable (such as thrills, chills, changes in heart rate) are reduced in some people.1
- What does it all mean?: Music is most likely pleasurable because it affects our brains in a similar way to how other rewarding things like food, drugs and sex does. 3
Music for comfort: Listening to sad music may be comforting during hard times.
- The research: It is suggested that sad music can comfort us by increasing levels of a hormone called prolactine. Prolactin is presented in tears and sadness (but not tears from eye irritation or tears of happiness) and is thought to tranquilize and console us when we are sad. Some speculate that sad music tricks the brain into releasing prolactin, making us feel better when we are sad. 2 Though it has yet to be shown that prolactin levels actually increase in response to sad music, studies have suggested that different types of music can change the levels of prolactine in healthy people. 3
- What does this mean?: Some hypothesize that sad music help us feel better by causing the release of a comforting hormone called prolactin. However, much more research is required to confirm and extend this.
Temporal Bisection Task: An experimental procedure used to figure out whether people underestimate or overestimate time. Participants are asked to memorize a “short” and “long” period of time (this is done using sounds or lights that last a certain duration) they are then presented a similar stimulus but with duration between the “short” and “long” ones they memorized. Subjects are asked to determine which one of the memorized stimuli it is closed to. The data from several trails, from several participants can be mathematically analyzed to determine whether the participants were more likely to underestimate or overestimate time.
Atonal music: Music made with sounds that do not reflect those of conventional music, such as “minimalistic music” or played in uncommon scales. Untrained listeners usually perceive this kind of music as unpleasant.
Music on time perception: Many studies have suggested that music makes time fly by.
- The research: Several studies conducted since the 1970s have repeatedly suggested that listening to music leads you an underestimation of time. For example, in a experiment conducted in 2010, a temporal bisection task was used to compare time perception while listening to either sad or happy computer generated music. How participants judged time while listening to music was compared to how they judged time while listening to atonal music. It was found that people tended to underestimate time intervals when listening to music (compared to when they listened to the atonal music), regardless of whether this music was happy or sad. Many experiments have tried to figure out whether how much someone likes or is familiar with the music or how loud or fast the music is can have an effect on time perception, but the results so far have been conflicting.4
- What does this all mean? : In short, these studies suggest that time flies while listening to music! However, it is still unknown whether other factors (enjoy ability, familiarity, volume or speed) have any further effects on this underestimation.
Self-chosen music on pain tolerance: Listening to a personal music collection can improve how well people are able to withstand painful conditions.
- The research: In a series of studies, participants were asked to put their hands in extremely cold water until they could no longer stand it anymore (this is known as the “cold presser technique”). In one study, people were able to keep their hands in the water for longer while listening to music they selected themselves, compared to when they listened to “relaxing music” chosen by the experimenter. These people also reported that they felt more in control over their pain while listening to their own music. In another similar study, participants kept their hands in water for longer and reported feeling like they had more control over their pain when listening to their choice of music compared to when they endured the pain in silence.5
- What does it all mean?: These studies don’t just suggest that listening to music can improve pain tolerance and control over pain; they also tell us that listening to personal, familiar or preferred music may be better for pain than either music or art chosen by someone else. The researchers hypothesize that this may happen because listening to personal music can better distract us from pain or make the painful situation feel more comfortable and familiar.
Melodies for memory: Listening to music while memorizing something may actually help us remember it later, if we listen to the same music again.
- The research: The ability of music to help with remembering certain things has been tested in many situations. This memory enhancement occurs when someone listens to a certain song, melody or rhythm while memorizing something and then hears that music again while trying to remember that thing. For example, in some studies, college students were better able to remember a list of random numbers when the music was paired with numbers. Researchers suggest that this may occur because the rhythm of music can help us split information into smaller, more manageable pieces.6
- What does it all mean?: Music can help to improve memory by acting as a prompt. That is, if we hear a certain melody or rhythm (or both) while memorizing something, listening to the same music later can help us recall what we memorized.
Though much research has been conducted to try and understand the potential effects of music on well-being, we still only understand bits and pieces of the vast puzzle. A lot of evidence suggests that music can play a role (small in most circumstances) in giving “wings to the mind” (through emotional regulation, affected time perception, better pain tolerance and better cognition). But just remember to take these results with a grain of salt because nothing as yet is conclusive in this field.
“Thrills in response to music and other stimuli.” Physiol Psychol (1980)
“Current Advances in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Music .“Ann N Y Acad Sci (2009)
“The effect of Music on the Production of Neurotransmitters, Hormones, Cytokines and Peptides.” Music Med (201)
“Changes in the representation of space and time while listening to music.” Font Psychol (2013)
“Music, health, and well-being. A review.” Int J Qual Stud Health well-being (2013)
“Effects of music Melodic Complexity and Rhythm on Working Memory as Measured by Digit Recall Performance.” Music Med (2011)
How does music effect you?