If you’re like me, you’ve had many a bad episode in life alleviated by music. Whether you’re stressed, sad, romantic, or energetic, there seems to be the right melody out there to help mitigate (or if need be, amplify) your mood. Similarly, there’s always the right song, band, or genre to listen to for a particular circumstance, from studying to work to exercise. Music serves as an incredibly versatile form of therapy, consolation, palliative, and more.
Now several studies have confirmed what many of us have long experienced: music has an amazing impact on our mood, cognition, and overall well-being. In fact, it stimulates and conveys ideas no differently than any spoken language, as concluded by a recent study reported in PolicyMic:
Utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a 2008 study focused on observing the brain responses of musicians while they played music, while a 2013 study looked at the fMRI recorded brain activity of listeners as music was played. Taken together, they paint a powerful portrait of why exactly music influences us the way it does. It comes down to one simple truth: Music actually is a special kind of language, one that works on our emotions rather than our reason.
One needn’t look to closely to notice the sheer complexity of musical compositions, which look very much like a written script onto themselves. In fact, as a more detailed account of the study reveals:
In 2008, Dr. Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, put musicians into an MRI with an instrument and told them to play both memorized and improvised pieces of music. When the musician improvised, another musician was put in the control room to play along. The findings were striking: When the two musicians played together, their brains responded exactly as they do during spoken conversation, with one difference. The regions that generally process the meaning of language shut down — the music was simply a communication impulse in structure and intent.
But what, it gets more interesting!
Music acts on the brain of a listener as if a recorded musician were speaking to you too. The 2013 study by researchers from Finland, the UK and Denmark went even further. They exposed subjects to different types of music, ranging from the Beatles’ epic Abbey Road medley to a modern rendition of an Argentinian tango. The takeaway: The human brain reacts differently to different types of music, eliciting very specific emotional, physical and behavioral responses, almost as if music were a map, communicating emotions to a brain even better than words. As in conversation, different inputs stimulate nearly all of the brain.
The study found something even more striking, though. It isn’t just music in general that affects us: Every genre and every song is its own map to a unique combination of feelings and thoughts. As this video recording of an fMRI of a brain responding to tango music shows, our reactions to music can be profound.
This is precisely why quiet songs tend to make you more reflective or daydreamy, why upbeat, poppy songs energize you and make you want to dance, and why aggressive or fast-paced songs may inspire aggressive feelings or help drive the intensity of a workout. Music — like the words, tones, and ideas of any other spoken language — elicits a visceral reaction. And like the vagaries of language, different music has different effects on different people.
But perhaps the palpable finding is that music is as vital to our well-being as social interaction.
A different study at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University suggests that listening to music “can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving,” even stimulating dopamine release in the brain — a chemical affiliated strongly with pleasure, reward and even addiction. Like speaking with a dear friend or hearing something sweet from someone you love, music is a conversation, one the brains of listeners and players alike need to keep having.
As someone whose recurring bouts of depression and anxiety are regularly kept in check by music and companionship alike, I can certainly vouch for this conclusion.