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5 Ways Music Affects the Brain

Stephen Arnold Music Brain

Music is more than just something that’s nice to have on in the background. It has powerful, far-reaching impact on your brain, and helps drive much of your behavior. Take a look at these research examples and see if you can identify these reactions in yourself!

1. Music Triggers Emotions

One of the first things that happens when music enters our brains is the triggering of pleasure centers that release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy. This response is so quick, the brain can even anticipate the most pleasurable peaks in familiar music and prime itself with an early dopamine rush.

Beyond simply making you feel good, however, there’s evidence that music can even be good for your health. Research has shown that listening to music is associated with upticks in immunity-boosting antibodies and cells that protect against bacteria and other invaders. Music has also proven to be effective across a variety of treatment scenarios for conditions ranging from premature birth to depression to Parkinson’s disease.

2. Music Improves Memory

A 2009 study from Petr Janata at the University of California, Davis found that there is a part of the brain that “associates’ music and memories when we experience emotionally salient episodic memories that are triggered by familiar songs from our personal past. In other words, our own familiar music can reconnect people with deep, meaningful memories from their past.

These principles are what we will use later to form the basis of specifically constructed playlists to evoke certain emotional responses that we wish to produce by the interaction with music and the brain.

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3. Music Makes You a Better Person

Music has the power to bring forth our better nature. Some rather interesting studies have been done on what researchers refer to as prosocial behaviors. These are voluntary behaviors intended to benefit others such as empathy, kindness, generosity, helpfulness and cooperation.

Listening to music makes people more inclined to spent time and energy helping others. This is especially pronounced when music is appreciated in a group such as when dancing, playing music with others, or attending a concert.

How Music Affects the Brain

4. Music Empowers Empathy and Self-Awareness

“Your brain has a reaction when you like or don’t like something, including music. We’ve been able to take some baby steps into seeing that, and ‘dislike’ looks different than ‘like’ and much different than ‘favorite.'” Says Jonathan Burdette, M.D., a neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

To study how music preferences might affect functional brain connectivity — the interactions among separate areas of the brain — Burdette and his fellow investigators used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which depicts brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. Scans were made of 21 people while they listened to music they said they most liked and disliked from among five genres (classical, country, rap, rock and Chinese opera) and to a song or piece of music they had previously named as their personal favorite.

Those fMRI scans showed a consistent pattern: The listeners’ preferences, not the type of music they were listening to, had the greatest impact on brain connectivity — especially on a brain circuit known to be involved in internally focused thought, empathy and self-awareness. This circuit, called the default mode network, was poorly connected when the participants were listening to the music they disliked, better connected when listening to the music they liked and the most connected when listening to their favorites.

A neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Burdette has conducted research into the effects of music on the brain. Credit: Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center Photography[/caption]

5. Music Shapes Us Before We Are Born

It certainly wasn’t known whether we could hear and respond to music before birth until the groundbreaking research of Sheila Woodward, a South African, who wanted to know more about musical sound in the womb. She was a young scientist in the early 1990’s — and pregnant; she wondered what music her own child was being exposed to before birth. In her studies at the University of Capetown, she worked with the Institute of Maritime Technology to adapt an underwater microphone so it could be placed in the uterus.

As we listen to the recordings that Woodward conducted with several mothers in early stages of labor, we first hear the rhythmic sound of blood coursing through the uterine artery. Says Woodward, “Nature allows us to evolve with rhythm all around us,” And her recordings reveal that a landscape of musical sound does indeed surround the fetus. Along with the natural womb sounds, we can hear the strains of a Bach Brandenburg Concerto being played, or the melody of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as Woodward sings in a normal tone of voice. The recordings show that the very high frequencies, like the sharp attack of an instrument, are attenuated and sound a bit muffled. The overall effect is like listening to music underwater. But when listening to the human voice, one can still detect whether it’s a woman or a man. And the tonal quality of the voice comes through.

Just because the sound of music exists in the womb doesn’t necessarily mean that the fetus hears it. Yet, the “startle response” of the fetus was measured as well, and Woodward’s team found that when music is played, the fetal heart rate becomes slightly elevated. Woodward says it was clear from the fetus reacted, as if to say, “Something’s happened and now there’s music!”

young man with ear buds

At Stephen Arnold Music, we excel at connecting these powerful emotions with your brand. In fact, we call it “sonic branding.” We’d love to help you with audio solutions to your branding challenges.

For more information don’t hesitate to contact us at 214.726.1600 or send us an email via our Contact Form »

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