Here’s What Music Does to Your Brain

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Ever wonder why the chorus to your favourite song gives you goosebumps on the back of your neck? Or why an upbeat playlist has the ability to completely elevate your mood?

Music and its benefits are interesting subjects. And almost everyone has their own personal anecdote of what makes music so special to them.

No doubt, music is some powerful stuff. But what’s really going on here?

To understand why music and its benefits affect us on such a profound level, we need to understand what music does to the brain.

So whether you’re a country fan, or you’re bopping to Bieber with the cool kids, let’s discover why music makes us feel so darn awesome…and better yet, why it’s good for us!

Did you know music is good for you?

Yep, it’s true. So next time you’re playing air guitar in your car at the traffic lights, take comfort in the fact that you’re actually giving yourself a mental workout!

Neurological studies have revealed that after music enters your ears, it resonates through all four of the brain’s major lobes. This then has the power to evoke emotions, nostalgia, memories and mood alterations. You could even think of music like a psychoactive drug!

In fact, just like nicotine or caffeine, listening to music has been shown to increase dopamine levels. This is largely what’s behind its capacity to increase feelings of pleasure and happiness, boost energy, help with focus and concentration and motivate.

Research has also found that music can even be therapeutic in certain contexts, such as in your working environment or for Alzheimer’s patients wanting to recall their pasts.

But first, let’s understand how music actually changes the brain…

What happens to your brain while you’re listening to music?

Tracking music’s pathway throughout the brain reveals a wondrous journey.

The auditory cortex and cerebellum are together responsible for dissecting the music you’re hearing into separate considerations, like pitch and volume. This onslaught of information includes other more complex features like timbre and spatial location, which other parts of the brain then interpret as a richer, more emotive experience.

Now, we’re no brain scientists so stick with us here…

But the cerebellum has intimate connections with the amygdala, perhaps the most famous part of the brain. The amygdala is so interesting because it’s the brain’s emotional centre and the frontal lobe. Largely the ‘feeling’ part of our mind, it’s processed by the mesolimbic system, which is in charge of arousal, pleasure and the transmission of neurotransmitters like dopamine.

And there you have it! That’s where the chills on the back of your neck come from.

And we haven’t even touched on rhythm. Our bodies respond differently to rhythm than they do to melody, as this involves a whole different variety of brain processes. Rhythm has the power to activate the motor cortex – this is what makes us want to dance or tap our legs to particularly groovy music. Studies have found that rhythms can even make changes to our heart rate and respiratory patterns!

The visual cortex is also active during music listening, which could explain why some music listeners experience synesthesia – the sensation of seeing images when listening to music. And memory is another aspect of the brain that is strongly influenced through listening to music.

Music and its benefits roll throughout our brain in such a unique and all-encompassing way, it’s no wonder it has the power to affect us so deeply. And this would likely explain why it has continued to be such a big part of our lives for millennia.

Where and when to listen?

Although listening to music is mostly a beneficial cerebral experience, there are some occasions where music could be a dangerous distraction. Or vice versa: what you’re doing might inhibit your brain’s ability to appreciate the music.

When trying to learn new tasks, it’s a bad idea to listen to particularly involving music. Your brain’s capacity will be split, and you’ll most likely find the experience unpleasant. Alternatively, listening to music that is new or strange to us can distract us from a task at hand. This is to be avoided if the task is important or requires a deeper level of concentration.

The good news is that listening to music in the workplace is usually positive. If your environment is noisy (for example, a call centre or busy office), music can allow your brain to focus and also calm your body and mind in the process. This can result in elevated productivity, and more importantly, a more enjoyable workday for you.

People in repetitive jobs have also been found to benefit from listening to music while they work. Studies have shown they are less likely to make errors, due to the dopamine and serotonin that music releases into the brain. These chemicals make us feel happy, relaxed and more focused.

And we all know how good working out to music in the gym feels. Even just plugging in the iPod on your Saturday morning walk will have the feel-good brain waves happening all weekend long. Music and its benefits can be long lasting.

As neurologist and music fan Oliver Sacks wrote in his book ‘Musicophilia’, our auditory and nervous systems “are indeed exquisitely tuned for music.”

So listen to it, love it and know that it’s doing your brain wonders!

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