Your brain on music


Senior Sophia Johnson discusses music in her column for the Wildcat Chronicle.

By Sophia Johnson, Columnist

A steady beat of a pencil hitting the paper. A car horn that echoes in perfect pitch. The tempo of feet as they hit the pavement. Music is all around us in our daily lives. Playing an instrument or listening to music can help train your brain to process situations in a positive manner, alleviates stress, and elevates mood.

Guitars on display at a local shop in West Chicago. (Photo by Andrea Hernandez)

The word music comes from the Greek word “mousike” meaning “art of the Muses.” “art of the Muses.” The practice of music has been around for millions of years, dating back to the Paleolithic period. The first music created imitates rhythms and sounds that occurred naturally for human experience and pleasure. Music was seen as a way to benefit the human body . as presented in ancient Egyptian medicine that can date back as far as 1500 BCE. The earliest known reference to music therapy appeared in the late 18th century. The efficiency of music on the human brain and body has been debated for decades as music can be seen as a “questionable” source of intelligence. However, the many benefits of music have been backed by a significant amount of research which continues to grow today.

Lecturer in neurology at Harvard Medical School Andrew E. Budson, M.D., said, “Music can activate almost all brain regions and networks, it can help to keep a myriad of brain pathways and networks strong, including those networks that are involved in well-being, learning, cognitive function, quality of life, and happiness.”

A recent study on music and brain health conducted by AARP in 2020 revealed that music listeners had “higher scores for mental well-being and reduced levels of anxiety/depression” compared to non-music listeners.

Active musical engagement, including those over 50, had higher rates of happiness and good cognitive function. Not only can musicality improve overall mood, but relaxation levels as well.

“Just like listening to slow music to calm the body, music can also have a relaxing effect on the mind,” said researchers at Stanford University, “We found that listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication.”

While pleasure is a human feeling that has been instilled in our bodies since birth, music seems a viable option compared to other dopamine hits like alcohol, opiates, or sugary foods. The belief of improved brain efficiency makes complete sense when comparing scenarios: a study session with quiet jazz sounds is much more enjoyable compared to a stale, quiet environment experience. Rhythm brings the mind a beautiful distraction to shut out the unorganized thoughts in the brain. With a taming of those runaway thoughts, work can be completed more efficiently. Even completely disregarding the extensive research done on music therapy and memory retention, utilizing music seems like a cheap and easy way to improve your life in major ways.

The piano (or keyboard) can be a particularly melodic instrument for those seeking stress-relief. (Photo by Andrea Hernandez)

Music has been a part of my life since before I can remember: I grew up taking piano lessons and continued for 8 years. I have also been involved in choirs at school, and surrounded by music-lovers for parents. The large Steinway grand piano my mother was gifted as an eighteenth birthday present is situated by the front entrance of our house, and music – from Broadway show tunes to Revolver, the Beatles’ 1966 album – stays on repeat day-to-day on our home speakers. I have experienced first-hand the benefits of music such as mood improvement and alleviation of stress.

“The quick and easy explanation is that music brings a unique pleasure to humans,” said Robert J. Zatorre, columnist for The New York Times . “Each act of listening to music may be thought of as both recapitulating the past and predicting the future. When we listen to music, these brain networks actively create expectations based on our stored knowledge.”

Music alleviates stress, helps our bodies heal, and more. Whether you are an avid music listener, or just like singing in the shower, keep in mind all of the health benefits that a simple task can hold. Next time you study or need to focus on an assignment, try listening to soft music such as jazz or even rain sounds and notice how your brain reacts. Use music strategically to fit your lifestyle or aid in tasks to help you do what you need to do.