Beyond Pleasure

Besides enjoyment, do we stand to gain anything else from music? A resounding YES, according to science.

Self-other merging
Playing an instrument

Play me a sad song

There are two groups of sad music listeners. First, the kind that tunes in to snappy, sunny melodies to mask what they’re feeling, in the hopes that the happy vibes will catch on sooner or later. The other chooses to find comfort in sad music, knowing they’ll feel better after a few cathartic moments.

What is it about humans enjoying sad songs, and why are sad songs so polarizing? From a biological perspective, research suggests that hormones may play a hand. Music stimulates the release of hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, and prolactin. The level of prolactin produced from listening to music may contribute to our preference for sad music.

For some, it’s as simple as the fact that sad music “moves” them, releasing a flood of emotions and allowing them to empathize with others. In some ways, sad songs function like “emotional gyms” for listeners. They provide a safe space to feel strong emotions, in which the simulated sadness presents lower stakes. In this space, we learn to deal with difficult feelings and explore the perspectives of others, in turn preparing ourselves for the real thing when it hits us.

Music as medicine

Beyond a self-medicated pick-me-up, music has also found a place in progressive health institutions. Doctors at Zurich University use music therapy on premature babies to improve brain development, with a focus on outcomes like oxygen saturation. With the help of a specialized instrument producing vibrations similar to what they would have experienced in their mother’s womb, the baby feels calmer and more reassured.

Shifting from the young ones to an advanced age, music therapy has also been the subject of much research in elderly patients. In South Korea, researchers provided Argentine tango therapy to Parkinson’s disease patients and found a dramatic improvement in patients’ ability to perform activities of daily living. The rhythm of the music helped patients keep their pace, starting with simply walking to the music before learning to dance with self-confidence. In turn, the physical activity improved their stance and posture.

Music is also widely used as a therapeutic intervention for patients with neurodegenerative disease. By stimulating nerves in the brain, music is said to stimulate the generation of new nerve cells and slow down the neurodegenerative process in early-stage patients. As well, patient well-being can improve greatly. The nostalgic aspects of music reconnects patients with their self-identity, enhancing their engagement in everyday life.

Connections made in song

Before music became personal with the advent of headphones and portable music players, it was a communal event. We dance in nightclubs, sing in choirs, and greet birthday celebrants by gathering around a cake and singing “Happy Birthday.”

Singing and moving to the same beat entails coordination and cooperation, even more so when we perform as part of a band or orchestra. In groups of strangers, shared musical activities are said to have an ice-breaking effect. Researchers suggest two possible explanations. In ‘self-other merging,’ we cease to see ourselves as separate from the others in the group, gaining a newfound empathy and concern for others. The other explanation has to do with the endorphins music releases, which promote social bonding.

At the height of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, heartwarming musical moments were found across pockets of Italy. Individuals stuck at home convened in their respective balconies, playing instruments for and with their neighbors to keep each other company and boost morale. This sense of community was invaluable to those who lived in isolation through uncertain times.

Debunking the Mozart effect

At one point in time, expecting mothers fed their babies a healthy dose of Mozart through headphones placed over their bellies, hopeful this would make geniuses of their babies. This misconception has since been debunked, but it’s worth settling the score: can music really make a person smarter?

As with many things in science, there’s no straightforward answer. Music can help with cognitive performance, but it doesn’t necessarily affect one’s intelligence directly. Research does show improved performance on IQ tests – and paper folding tests – for participants who listened to classical music before taking their exams. However, the Mozart effect was a hasty assumption off the backs of these results.

Subsequent studies later explained that the correlation may have been caused by a mitigating factor. Listening to classical music alleviates stress and increases enjoyment. Thus, participants scored better not so much because they were smarter but because they were in a better frame of mind.

A welcome distraction

What about listening to relaxing music while studying or doing other cognitive tasks? Does sustained exposure provide enhanced benefits? Again, there’s no straightforward answer. According to research, it depends on a few factors: the task itself, the type of music, and the personality of the individual.

Complex tasks require more cognitive load. Since music presents additional stimulation to the brain, it can be distracting in most circumstances. The same line of thinking applies to the type of music being played in the background. Loud, intricate music competes with the task at hand for our brain’s cognitive load, whereas soft, relaxing music can provide just the right amount of stimulation without being distracting.

Finally, an individual’s need for external stimulation, whether high or low, impacts the scenario, as well. For someone with a need for external stimulation, listening to music while studying will almost always be unhelpful. On the opposite end, those who require low external stimulation may find they benefit from listening to soft, simple music for most tasks.

A full-brain workout

More than listening to music, experts recommend playing an instrument. Just as watching a sports game provides excitement and mental stimulation, being a spectator pales in comparison to actually being out on the field – that’s how you get a workout.

Playing a musical instrument is the equivalent of giving your brain a full-brain workout. When you pick up a guitar, you engage multiple areas of your brain. Pressing on the correct frets while also watching out for your plucking technique on your other hand requires fine motor skills and good coordination. With every moment of guitar playing, you’re engaging your visual, auditory, and motor cortices.

Playing an instrument uses both hemispheres of the brain more equally than listening to music. As a result, the corpus callosum, or the bridge between the two hemispheres, is more developed among instrumentalists. With disciplined, structured practice, instrumentalists gain problem-solving, planning, cognitive, and memory skills. If you’ve spent your life without having ever played an instrument, there’s good news. Experts say it’s never too late to start.

Forged in memory

Why does music hold such a special place in our hearts and memories? Studies conducted on people who suffer from memory loss explain why music is often the last to go, even when someone struggles to remember who they are or how to function in daily life. Thanks to brain imaging technology, neuroscientists discovered that musical data is special in that it’s stored in a different part of the brain, what we call the “musical memory area” or MMA.

Because the MMA is separate from other parts of the brain responsible for long-term memory, damage to one does not affect the other. In fact, with Alzheimer’s patients, research has found that the MMA is often the last to degenerate. For this reason, music therapy is often effective at helping dementia and Alzheimer’s patients regain a sense of self. They’re able to tap into memories related to music from their youth.

Memory tricks

Even for healthy, young brains, music is usually easier to remember than anything else. You might still remember the lyrics from a song you haven’t heard in years, even as you struggle to remember what you studied last night for today’s exam, or where you left your phone a few moments ago.

Music uses the power of rhyme, rhythm, and melody to be memorable, and it helps that it’s built on repetition and pattern. Songs become even more powerful when we attach meaning and emotion to them. That’s why, for a large part of human history, many cultures relied on folk music and oral tradition to pass on the important parts of their heritage. It’s also why some teachers use music to help students memorize otherwise boring topics, like history dates or the periodic table. A rhyme and a catchy tune do more than make studying fun; they also make content stick better.

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