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When philosopher and psychologist William James said that he didn't sing because he was happy, but he was happy because he sang, he was onto something big. Listening to music and singing are almost universal human experiences, and most people will acknowledge that music plays a huge role in their lives. What exactly does it do for the body and the brain, though? Music, as it turns out, as almost mythical effects that most of us intuitively recognize.
How Music Alters The Body's Chemical Symphony
You already know that listening to touching music can alter the way you feel, but what's happening in your body when you turn on your favorite songs?
In a study led by neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor and published in the journal Nature, music was shown to induce the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. The authors wrote that "music, an abstract stimulus, can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system." That is, music you like impacts you at a chemical level, much like physical pleasures such as sex and food do. The study didn't just show that music induced feelings of happiness at the time of listening, but also that even just anticipating listening to music can do the same thing!
While listening to music releases dopamime, it also lowers cortisol levels, thereby reducing both acute and chronic stress. Stress itself, meanwhile, doesn't just make people feel bad, it actually actually reduces immune-system functioning, thereby making the chronically stressed more susceptible to disease. That's especially a problem if your stress is caused by disease in the first place, isn't it? A study of hospitalized children at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital showed that music can in fact reduce both anxiety and pain, and the authors concluded that it wasn't the social aspect of music that made this possible, but the music itself.
Though just listening to music can lower your stress levels and indirectly contributes to your overall health, another study found that actively participating in music is even better.
How About Depression, Then?
There is some evidence that listening to music before attempting to sleep reduces both insomnia and feelings of depression, but beware — not just any music will do! Those people who listened to classical or meditative music before bed reaped the benefits and felt less depressed, but those who were exposed to either techno or heavy metal didn't experience any reduction in their depressive symptoms.