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.
What Else Can Music Do For Your Health?
Using Music To Boost Performance
Do you ever find yourself listening to upbeat music while you clean the house, while you exercise, or when you go for a jog outside? You'll doubtlessly end up singing along, adjusting your movements to the tempo of the music, and going faster. Performing physical activities is easier when great songs keep us company, but does listening to music actually improve your performance?
Interestingly enough, the research found that this "motivational music" could be either slow or fast — as long as it inspires you, it will make you faster! Though this study specifically looked into running, it's hardly a stretch to conclude that you'll perform any physical activity better if you listen to music that motivates you are doing it.
Can Music Help People With Memory Impairment And Brain Damage?
Knowing that prior research had already shown that singing can help language-learners acquire new phrases more easily, one team of scientists set out to discover whether listening to music and singing could also help people with Alzheimer's Disease. Elderly people with early-stage Alzheimers were randomly assigned to one of three groups in the study. One group focused on listening to music, discussing it, and reminiscing about memories related to the music. Another was more actively, incorporating singing and movement in the classes alongside listening to music. The third group, the control group, didn't feature the introduction of more music to the patients' lives.
Both groups that were exposed to music showed an improvement in mood, overall wellbeing, and memory, with the group of Alzheimer's patients who engaged in singing having better working memory after participating in the project for 10 weeks than those who focused on listening to music.
Further research from various countries additionally revealed that music also has the power to help people who had strokes recover faster. That is, listening to music several hours a day helped with concentration as well as language recovery and mood. Teppo Särkämö, the lead author of a Finnish study into the benefits of music for stroke patients suggested that "everyday music listening during early stroke recovery offers a valuable addition to the patients' care- especially if other active forms of rehabilitation are not yet feasible".
Does Music Also Benefit Physical Health?
You bet! The currently available body of research clearly shows that heart attack survivors and other heart patients had lower blood pressure, slower heart rates, less anxiety about their medical condition, increased blood flow, and less pain if they listened to music for 20 to 30 minutes a day.
Music and singing are integral parts of every culture on Earth. You've certainly already experienced the way in which music can make you feel better, comfort you, help you sleep, and boost your productivity. Now you know that music offers a science-backed way to reduce stress and depression and increase memory as well! Music, as it turns out, is no less important than healthy eating, regular exercise, or taking a daily nutritional supplement. Music isn't just something that shows we're human, it actually makes us healthier — so turn up the volume!