Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a 19th-century American poet, described music as the “universal language of mankind,” and he wasn’t wrong. Music, no matter who you are, where you’re from, or how educated you may be, is part of everyone’s life. From humming a lullaby to soothe a baby to live gigs, everyone at some point has experienced it. There’s something uniquely personal and yet completely uniting about music, and therein lies its power.
Music is everywhere. You can see it in movies, plays, and advertisements, there are even buskers on busy city centre streets. There’s simply no escaping it, and modern technology has made music consumption easier than it has ever been. There are over 150 recognised platforms worldwide for streaming, sharing, and otherwise enjoying music, with Spotify at the top with 350 million users worldwide.
With such a vast range of music on offer from a mass of platforms, there must be something about music which feeds into the human experience, causing people to relate and respond to it in ways that no other medium manages, but how?
We can all agree that listening to certain types of music at specific times can have an altering effect on our mood. How many of us listen to music to hype ourselves up for exercise, competitive events, nights out, or just to motivate ourselves to spring clean? There is a reason that people have playlists for calming down, going to sleep, wallowing in heartbreak, working out, and celebrating happy occasions.
This happens because when we listen to music, the brain is stimulated and the feel-good chemical, Dopamine, is released. The more pleasurable we find the music, the more dopamine is released, resulting in the listener feeling good and, even at times, euphoric.
Listening to music can also stimulate other hormones in the brain, such as norepinephrine and melatonin, both of which are beneficial for good mental health. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter and hormone which works as part of the nervous system, which is part of the “fight-or-flight” response to danger or stress. Norepinephrine increases alertness, maintains blood pressure during stress, and affects mood and memory. Melatonin, also known as the sleep hormone, is vital to promote healthy sleep and maintaining good mental health. In fact, Alex Doman, an entrepreneur and music producer, observed that “music brings us pleasure and releases our suffering. It can calm us down and pumps us up. It helps us manage pain, run faster, sleep better, and be more productive.”
It’s no surprise then, that music is often used to help reduce and manage stress, anxiety, and depression. According to a study by AARP Research in 2020, 68% of participants in the study who were exposed to music as a child stated their ability to learn ranged from very good to excellent. Also, three-quarters of the participants reported being involved in singing, either in a choir or solo and were found to have a higher quality of life than those who were not involved with singing in some way. The study also found that music positively influenced the human nervous system, showing that those who listened to music after a stressful event recovered more rapidly than those who did not, with a far lower cortisol level (stress hormone) apparent in their systems.
Furthermore, music can also have positive effects on the body itself. Whether you’re switching to a faster tempo song to beat your personal best at the gym, or are simply trying to push through the pain of an injury and get on with your day, music can help. This is because music stimulates and even competes with the pathways within the brain, distracting attention from pain and discomfort and thus, making it easier to push on through tiredness or aches.
More than this, music can instigate action within and boost the productivity of the relationship between the auditory neurons and the motor function neurons within the brain. When listening to music while training, athletes have reported a lower level of exertion and boosted motivation, helping them to work out longer and more effectively.
But what about the other side of the coin? How many times have you been feeling fine, but heard a sad song and suddenly your mood dropped? Or you were upset and listened to some sad music and wallowed in your feelings, only to end up feeling a little lighter than before? This is certainly something Maya Angelou, an American poet, agreed with when she stated, “music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”
Aristotle referred to this term as catharsis, referring to the cleansing of strong, pent-up emotions which build up through everyday life. The theory was, if the audience were able to process and expel strong negative emotions while watching plays, then those emotions wouldn’t negatively affect everyday life. Today, catharsis doesn’t only refer to watching plays, but to any emotional release brought on via artwork.
In much the same way, when we listen to sad songs, it can increase the sadness we’re already feeling. For example, if we have recently ended a romantic relationship, listening to songs about heartbreak could cause us to feel emotional. This strong emotion tends to happen when we can relate to the music we’re hearing in some way.
Also, if the music is something we feel comfortable and familiar with, the positive memories associated with that music are evoked and can help lift our mood. Quite often, we form such an emotional connection with music that we listened to during adolescence that listening to the same music as adults can take us back to memories of that time. Between the years of 12 and 22, the brain creates strong neurological connections with the music we listen to, making each time we listen to the specific songs we enjoyed during that time a personal and memorable experience. This is something which is especially seen when treating people who suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other medical conditions affecting memory.
Andre Feriante, an award-winning guitarist, certainly agreed with this contention, stating “music has the power to heal, transform, and inspire, and we have the power through deep listening to increase our intuition and self-awareness.” With this information in mind, it’s understandable that music can have such a positive impact on all areas of cognitive functioning, and this is why musical therapy is often used to treat conditions such as anxiety and Alzheimer’s, as a study or sleep aid, and as a motivational tool.