There aren’t many people who don’t enjoy listening to music. Whether we do it to relax, study, contemplate, workout, or even just to boost our mood, it’s an important part of all of our lives. Music is part of pretty much every culture out there and remains a vital part of everyday life. Could listening to more music make you smarter and happier as well? Could music be the secret to longevity?
The brain and music
Music, as with all sounds, comes into the brain in the form of sound waves. First, it enters the ear canal where it is transferred to the eardrum and then, after a long process of bouncing around inside the depths of the ear, it reaches the cochlea. The cochlea is filled with fluid and tiny hairs called cilia and this is where the magic happens. The sound waves cause the fluid to move which in turn moves the cilia. These cells release chemical neurotransmitters that activate the auditory nerve.
That’s how we hear music. Of course, this is very much a simplified version of what happens and admittedly there are a few steps after that. But that’s the gist of it anyway. It’s an incredibly long journey that happens in a matter of nanoseconds. Over the years, there have been multiple studies on just how music affects the brain. Many of these studies have had similar findings. It seems to have an immensely positive impact on both the mind and the body. It seems to stimulate more separate parts of the human brain than anything else. Various scientists agree that it can help with pain reduction, stress and even boost mental performance.
The Mozart Effect
One of the most popular supposed “tricks” of music, the ability to improve intelligence is called the Mozart effect. The term was first coined in 1991 and the findings seem to indicate that listening to classical music, specifically, as seen by Mozart, can boost your intelligence. Researchers at The University of California noticed that musicians have an incredible understanding of mathematics and decided to investigate the potential lie between music and cognition. Essentially, the idea behind the study was that simply listening to music, particularly Mozart, could potentially boost the IQ of the listener.
Amazingly, this is true. Unfortunately, researchers aren’t actually clear on how this works, but the consensus is that it does work. It seems to be likely that listening to Mozart helps the nerve cells to organize themselves more efficiently. The nerve cells in question fire simultaneously on the right-hand side of the cerebral cortex.
This is important because the cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for ‘higher functions’. Some types of music appear to act as a warm-up for the brain and this causes information to be processed more efficiently and effectively. It is however worth noting that this supposed boost in IQ is very modest. There are differing opinions amongst scientists when it comes to just how much it might improve your IQ points. Mostly, they seem to agree that the boost is likely to be a very temporary boost (about 15 minutes) and that your IQ is likely to be boosted very slightly (8 or 9 IQ points). Some scientists however disagree and think that the increase in IQ may be as tiny as 2.1 IQ points.
Music to make you happier
Boosting your IQ is great and might be beneficial when taking a test or trying to solve a particularly difficult mathematical equation but does listening to music make us happier. 2020 wasn’t a great year and thus far, 2021 isn’t proving itself to be that much better. Happiness at a time like this can be hard to come by. Could listening to music help to up your levels of happiness? If it can, how on earth does it do it?
We’ve all had those moments where a certain song comes on, and it seems to just flip a switch in your brain. You can go from neutral, sad, or stressed to happy in what seems like a split second. This effect of music is also hugely beneficial for those who struggle with mental health issues. The reason behind this, as with everything to do with the human brain, is slightly complicated.
However, it seems that certain music releases dopamine which is more commonly known as the love hormone. Dopamine is linked with feelings of contentment and happiness and some studies have shown that it can even lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). Essentially, the way it works is that music activates multiple regions of the brain simultaneously. Some of the regions which are activated are those which are associated with memory and emotion. Because of its direct relation to memory, it can spark neural pathways and is thus great for positive association.
Music and pain
Music is well known for being an expression of emotion, but it can serve to alter emotions as well. This has been linked to the ability to reduce stress and increase overall happiness over the years. This makes sense when you think about how popular meditation music and relaxation sounds have become in the past few years. Not only does it relieve stress, but it also seems to be able to reduce pain.
A study from New York focused on injured and surgical patients. In this study, all the patients were to receive cataract surgery, the average age of the group was 74. Participants were split into two groups; the first received normal care but no auditory stimulation. The second group listened to the music of their choice before, during, and after surgery. The group that listened to music throughout the operation reported feeling calmer during the procedure. This was reflected in surgeons and nurses through a distinct reduction in blood pressure in the listening group.
Music and memory
Listening to music whilst studying is a popular trick amongst a lot of students but does it work? Are there any benefits at all? It seems like the answer is a strong yes.
However, it does seem to depend on what type of music you choose to listen to while you study. This might also vary from person to person. Factors you might not think would be important actually seem to play a huge role in the interaction between music and memory.
One of these factors is how musically adept the listener is. Students who didn’t have any musical training seemed to perform better when they listened to upbeat, happy music. On the other side of the coin, the musically trained students struggled to concentrate when they listened to the upbeat music. Instead, they performed better with neutral music.
Another aspect of music and memory is language. It seems that if you are trying to learn a new language, it might be better to sing the phrases than to simply say them. Singing phrases seemed to yield quicker results and generally, higher levels of understanding.
The bottom line
Listening to music on a daily basis can only be beneficial to your health. If you engage in active listening where you focus on the music whilst it plays, it is likely to be beneficial for relieving stress and could even help with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Whether it makes you smarter, because of its links to the brain’s neural pathways, is a brilliant tool for improving memory. Listening to music could make you happier and, in a time like this, there’s nothing we need more than a bit more happiness.