Every one of us has, in our brain, a file folder of songs and melodies that are capable of evoking very distinct memories – of schools, of relationships, of events, of family traditions. Usually they make us feel very happy, but they can also be bittersweet or even quite frightening.
Scientists are starting to understand just how music is able to have a profound impact on the human brain. Using imaging techniques like MRI’s, scientists have been able to look at what happens in the brain when a person listens to music. While other activities such as speaking, reading, writing, painting stimulate some parts of the brain music affects more parts of the brain at one time than pretty well anything else. It’s like when we listen to music, our brain is on fire. In fact, listening to music lights up more of the brain than any other stimulus we know.
Music turns on the parts of the brain responsible for memory, motor control, timing, language and emotions. It has the most effect on what it called the limbic system, the brain cells related to feelings and especially feelings of reward and pleasure. That means when you hear a song or melody that you like, the feeling of satisfaction is akin to winning a prize or enjoying a favorite food as a reward for a job well-done. Listening to music we like releases a chemical called dopamine in the brain. This is what makes us feel happy and pleased. That’s why the more we like a song, the more pumped up we’ll feel upon hearing it.
Music is also capable of making us feel sad or scared. The part of the brain associated with fear is very responsive to music. Watching a suspense movie with eerie melodies may create such anxiety that our hearts race and our palms start sweating. Hospitals have found that relaxing tunes on the other hand (Muzak-like) can also calm frightened patients so much that their recovery from surgery is quicker and requires fewer drugs or medications.
It’s noteworthy that in spite of extremely wide variations of music styles, patterns and even rhythms from culture to culture and age group to age group, the emotional response to music is universal. People in Europe, Africa and the Americas will all identify the same music as being happy, sad, comforting or anxiety-producing.
Certain types of music, especially classical (country & western and rap less so) can boost your concentration and memory – at least for a short while. That’s why children are taught multiplication tables and the alphabet to familiar sing-song.
The implication of this for children and caregivers of seniors is profound. If at all possible, seniors – even those with advanced dementia or other neurological conditions – should be sung to constantly. Families should let caregivers know what a senior’s favorite songs or melodies are so that they can sing to them and maybe even along with them. At the very least, if the caregiver is shy or tonally-challenged, they should be encouraged to play recorded music for their clients.
Many people seem to think music is a private thing best enjoyed with earphones, but it is really a social creation. Except for some solo artists, most music is made by people playing together and it is best enjoyed live. Studies shows that people’s brains react more strongly to live music, played by real people than to the same music played by a computer.
Music helps us be happy and it has the power to draw people together.
Music energizes. One family had a grandmother who was in a nursing home in an advanced state of dementia. One visiting day, the family sat her in front of the old, out of tune piano in the activity room. She had been a cabaret pianist in her youth and subsequently taught piano to as many in the family who would agree to it. Miraculously she started playing and playing well to the joyful tears of her loved ones and the total surprise of the others in the home. From that day on, until she was physically unable to move, she played every day. She lived past her hundredth birthday and died shortly after she stopped being able to play.