“I have found that no matter what life throws at me, music softens the blow.”

Music surrounds us in our everyday lives. From the moment we get into our cars, music regularly follows us on the radio all the way to our destinations. It’s there the moment we step into a restaurant or a waiting room, when we need motivation to run that extra mile, or help to escape the ruckus of public transportation. Even amidst the mall bustle and downtown hustle music can be found, and it’s for this reason that we often take it for granted. We forget just how valuable music can be for our mental and physical health, our social behaviours, and our cognitive functions.

Music and The Brain

Music affects the brain in a number of fascinating ways. An EEG can demonstrate how our brainwaves change while listening to different kinds of music. If we listen to the slow and soothing ballad of our favourite Disney princess, for example, we are likely to see more alpha waves; waves that occur when we are in a relaxed state. If we listen to the Jaws theme on the other hand, we are likely to see waves of higher frequencies which indicate more psychological tension. This goes to show just how receptive and sensitive our brains are to the experience of music.

Many musicians have described this experience as addictive, and there’s some scientific basis to this since music can actually activate the reward system in our brains. When we listen to or play music that we enjoy, our brains are releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in pleasure, attention, and motivation. As a song builds and eventually reaches its peak, more dopamine is released and this is a very rewarding experience. Music also influences other pathways of the brain’s limbic system, which is involved in emotion regulation. For instance, faster tempos can trigger higher-arousal emotions such as excitement or anger, while slower tempos can make us feel more serene. Emotion regulation can also be affected by elements of song such as complexity and mode. With the right combinations of these elements, music can be used as an accessible and effective coping mechanism through difficult times.

Others have described music as a type of medicine. Studies have shown that listening to it has helped individuals reduce their pain levels after surgery and has also relieved pain in individuals with certain health conditions such as fibromyalgia. Listening to music is also an effective way to reduce one’s heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels which are all indicators of stress. In addition to helping with pain, stress, and emotion regulation, music is being used in therapy to help individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, communication difficulties, insomnia, brain injuries, obsessive-compulsive disorder and more.

Music and Social Behaviour

Music is also known to be a facilitator of prosocial behaviour. It has a special effect of uniting people and instilling a sense of togetherness, making it easier for individuals to put others before themselves. Music actually stimulates the same brain regions that are activated when we engage in selfless acts! This sense of connection is especially noticeable when we create music with others. In fact, studies have shown that when we sing with others, our levels of oxytocin – a hormone that is linked to trust and bonding – increase.

So it’s really not surprising that we tend to turn to music in times of trouble, when we need to know that we are not alone. You may be reminded of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people all around the world would step out onto their balconies to sing with their neighbours, or how Parisians stood together and sang hymns when Notre Dame was burning. It is during these times of darkness and uncertainty that music can enable a sense of community and solidarity.

It’s not uncommon to feel lonely while living through precarious circumstances, but next time this feeling arises, listening to or playing music with others may be just the thing you need to remind yourself that you are part of something bigger, and that there is light beyond the dark.

Music and Development

Music can have important benefits very early on in life which is why it is incorporated and highly valued in most school curricula. For instance, listening to songs and singing along can play an important role in language acquisition and developing communication skills, because singing allows children to sound out words and quickly become familiar with more terms. Music has also been shown to enhance memory, literacy skills and even help with math skills! Additionally, it’s a great tool to use to help children develop motor skills. Just like adults, when young children hear music that they like, they get the urge to dance to it. This allows them to explore their movements and develop better coordination and balance.

Music can also play a big part in making friends at school. Singing and dancing as a class is a bonding experience that tends to boost confidence too, which may make it easier for children to reach out to others and create friendships. Unsurprisingly, music can foster creativity, which can nurture special talents and introduce new mediums for healthy expression. Lastly, it can teach children valuable lessons about virtues such as kindness and resilience, while simultaneously making children aware of current real-world circumstances. Check out a personal favourite of mine during the COVID-19 pandemic, “Bounce Back!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3Vq6DvChAA