Music and the mind
Updated: Nov 14, 2021
Since the very beginning of time, music has always surrounded us, enveloping us in its aura of emotions and mellifluous sound that twirl around our minds. Pop songs’ catchy beat make our hearts float and our feet dance while also being able to bring some people to tears. We learn the alphabet through a song and memorize the cheerful (and sometimes dark) melodies of nursery rhymes. Symphonies played in perfect harmonies keep us on the edge of our toes and inspire with every note and certain songs no matter the genre can bring back waves of nostalgia. From the harsh and loud sounds of heavy metal to the quiet and soft beats of lofi hip-hop, music has shown to impact our brains in a powerful way.
Research in neuromusicology has discovered that music has a powerful influence on our brains- both positively and negatively. Different genres of music can affect your mindset, emotions, and even illnesses and pain.
It’s not uncommon for people to listen to upbeat music to attempt to lift their spirits or listen to more melancholy tones to bury themselves in sadness when they’re just not feeling it. But do these actually work in changing your mood?
In a 2013 study of whether forcing yourself to think happier makes you actually feel better, Yuna L. Ferguson had participants listen to music to try and increase their mood. After the study concluded, they found that people who listened to upbeat music could improve their moods and boost their happiness in just a mere two weeks. By listening to happier music, you can (and will!) become happier.
Another common use of music is to focus. When distractions seem like they’re clouding your brain, lyricless music is a frequent go-to when attempting to work diligently and effectively. According to a Stanford University School of Medicine study in 2007, classical music specifically has been proven to guide your brain to interpret and absorb information more effectively with ease. They found that music helps to engage your brain to pay more attention to the world around you, helping you focus more and change your analytical thinking.
Additionally in another study, evidence had been gathered to suggest it may also improve your memory. “Music may increase neurogenesis in the hippocampus, allowing [the] production of new neurons and improving memory,” reports Ayako Yonetani, a world-renowned violinist who explores neuromusicology with neuroscientist Kiminobu Sugaya. So while it might not help you conjure up correct answers during that exam you didn’t study for, classical music will definitely change your mindset and guide your thinking to an answer based on any information you may already know.
The use of music therapy is not an uncommon treatment to help various types of illnesses. Patients with dementia, a general term for severe memory loss, limited thinking abilities, and limited social skills, have shown to be affected positively by music. A 2017 report on the matter has revealed that familiar music has helped patients with emotional and behavioral benefits, especially in Alzheimer’s disease, a variation of dementia. The study reports that “Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer's disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease.” Some patients have been reported as responding to certain genres of music from their past, like favorite songs, wedding music, etc., by tapping their foot or humming to the beat. “If you play someone’s favorite music, different parts of the brain light up,” says neuroscientist Sugaya. “That means memories associated with music are emotional memories, which never fade out — even in Alzheimer’s patients.” Music can also help to lift the mood and reduce the anxiety and agitation of those with dementia and connect them with their loved ones despite the difficulty in communication.
Music has been shown to help patients cope or even help the healing process, but healthwise, music can also cause injury. Although very rare, music has been noted to sometimes cause seizures. A small number of people have found that for them, music triggers epilepsy. Epilepsysociety.org.uk (Music and epilepsy) defines this version of epilepsy as “musicogenic epilepsy,” which is “a rare form of complex reflex epilepsy with seizures induced by listening to music, although playing, thinking, or dreaming of music have all been noted as triggers.” It’s incredibly uncommon, with some reports showing that it affects 1 in 10,000,000 people. The type of music that induces it varies from person to person, with some being affected by a specific genre and others by a single instrument or singer.
Of course, music can be detrimental to your brain as well. Though very minimal, it’s important to take note of how your mind can be affected in a harmful way.
Some research has shown that listening to certain genres that are overall more depressing or angry can affect your state of mind in the same way that music can uplift your mood when the song radiates positivity. Sometimes, listening to these types of music is intentional by the listener, to increase the intensity of an emotion you may be experiencing, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy for you.
Furthermore, a research paper from 2003 written by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has also revealed that certain songs can invoke aggressive thoughts and emotions. Five experiments were conducted, with the final results showing that “college students who heard a violent song felt more hostile than those who heard a similar but nonviolent song,” thus showing how certain songs can negatively influence your feelings.
But don’t let that stop you from enjoying your music! Just because some music has been suggested to influence your mental state in a harmful way doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it if you like it. There are loads of different categories of music just waiting to be discovered, and even more songs to listen to — each one that may impact you differently. I feel as though we often take for granted how much music means to us and how hefty of a role it plays in our everyday lives. After all, without music, life would B♭!