My Big Question: What Are the Effects of Music On the Brain?
You know, I still remember the first day I held an instrument. I was sitting in a crowded library with about a million other kids and with ridiculously shaky and clammy hands, I assembled (or tried to assemble) my clarinet. I mirrored the actions of my band teacher, Ms. Belyea, and proceeded to soak a popsicle stick looking thing (known as a reed) and placed it with much precision on my mouthpiece. She then asked me to play a note using just the mouthpiece. It was the most unpleasant sound ever. Unfortunately, that’s all I had time to do because I had to return to class, however when I got home, I opened my clarinet book and proceeded to learn a few notes. I stared fervently at the fingering chart and my mind and fingers looked back at me and I’d sense them freaking out a little bit. It became a bit of a daily routine, but over the course of about a few weeks or so, I got the hang of it. Eventually, I had it down to a science. I was about 9 at the time, and who knew that experience would forever change my life. Suddenly, I noted that the way I paid attention in class was different. The way I learned was different. I felt different. Like I was transformed into this dope ass clarinet playing rockstar and nothing could stop me. It’s strange to say now, but I felt like I could rule the world at the time. That little confidence boost I found was only the beginning. There were so many more positive things going on in that little brain of mine that I didn’t even know! I just knew I felt different. Like something inside me changed. Like something had filled a void I didn’t know existed.
As I got older, I began seeing even more positive effects of music. Math became a lot easier and my mind comprehended things such as fractions a lot more. Learning languages didn’t seem like such a foreign process. Wavelengths and frequencies in physics? Pffff, I understood that before we even learned about that. I felt more creative and productive. But… why? I felt like an athlete on steroids, and I knew it must’ve been something involving music that made me feel this way, however, I couldn’t identify what about music was giving me so much life. And I, in all honesty, refused to believe that something as simple as music could have such a drastic effect on me. I felt delusional. I would tell myself, “There’s no way in hell learning how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb in 5th grade could have such a profound effect on your life.” But, the more I looked into it, I realized it is definitely possible, and these positive effects occur in the lives of millions of musicians out there.
I will divide this next section into two smaller sections: the section with a whole lotta science and the section with not as much science but still quite a bit of science. I’ll start with the main science portion. Now, we all have that one song that makes us happy or brings us some type of joy. For me, if you play anything from The Weeknd or anything from a mariachi, I guarantee you I will cry tears of joy which is rare for me. This is caused by a number of things. Music boosts brain chemicals, and most of these chemicals are chemicals that help with mood. The main one that is increased is a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This is known as the “feel-good” hormone, so when you listen to or play music, it gets you in a better mood because this chemical, dopamine, is released. Dope, right? Music can also give you the opposite effect. A while back, I saw this meme that said “When you listen to sad music when you’re sad” and it showed a man washing his car with a water hose in the rain. Though that action makes no sense to us, listening to sad music when we’re sad is actually helpful. I’m going to use on of DP’s favorite words right now; listening to sad music when you’re sad is a cathartic release, and actually, helps a lot in the healing process if you’re going through something psychologically traumatizing or difficult. Again, pretty dope. Additionally, music releases cortisol, a stress-reducing chemical. I deal with bad anxiety at times, and to fight with it, I usually sit at my keyboard or guitar at home and just play. I never understood why this helped me, until just a few days ago, actually, when I began digging deeper into this topic. Chronic stress can have serious effects on one’s health, and cortisol is there to help regulate stress levels. When one plays music or listens to music, that chemical goes up, effectively reducing stress. There have been days where my dad will come home, stressed beyond his damn mind, and he’ll just sit and listen to music. He listens to quite a bit of Backstreet Boys, but that’s beside the point. Music also stimulates oxytocin, a hella important hormone in your brain. This is known at the trust or moral molecule, and it helps us connect and bond with others. People with high oxytocin levels are more trustworthy and generous, and people with low oxytocin levels… not so much. Music gives us a boost in that hormone, making us just a bit more generous towards other people. That’s really only the start of the positive effects music has on the brain. The effects stated earlier are things that can’t really be observed, minus on a microscopic level, but there are some changes and effects you can see a bit easier. For example, if you actually look at the brain of a musician and compare it to that of a nonmusician, there is a significant difference, first of all, in symmetry. A musician’s brain is significantly more symmetrical than that of a nonmusician. Music also encourages literal brain growth and change. And general areas responsible for essential functions are larger, such as the corpus callosum.
Now, following all that complicated science talk, this section will be sprinkled with a tiny bit of science, but not as much as the last section. So, let’s go! Now, I mentioned earlier that the way I learned seem to change. I felt a lot smarter after joining band, as weird as that may sound. But, that is actually a real thing that happens to people of all ages as soon as music becomes a more crucial part of their lives. Music increases people’s IQ’s, test scores, brain connectivity, and spatial intelligence. Spatial intelligence is very important because it helps us understand how and why things work, a crucial skill in many careers that are highly demanded nowadays such as engineering. Children with musical training, in general, do much better than their nonmusical peers and report feeling happier in school than those without musical training. I think that this is something we can just observe in everyday life. During marching band season, there is this energy in the band room, my home away from home, that you can’t really find anywhere else. There are so many positive vibes going around. You can see the confidence on the faces of the tuba players, the concentration on the faces of the percussionists, the determination on the drum major’s face… all of that contributes to the vibe that the band room gives off. It just oozes life. And quite frankly, I think that’s due to the effects music has on us.
So, why is music important? Without a doubt, it is beyond important and it is extremely beneficial to society. I want to elaborate a bit on musical therapy. Musical therapy is a form of therapy for people with chronic diseases and problems and is just as helpful and beneficial as taking a pill here or an injection there. In some cases, it’s even more beneficial. Musical therapy helps those with depression, dementia, anxiety, autism, PTSD… you name it. I am actually looking into receiving musical therapy for myself at the moment. But, right now, I want to shine a light on one specific disease: Alzheimer's. For those of you that don’t know, it is a type of dementia that is extremely detrimental to memory and behavior. It is very common, with over 3 million cases a year. It is chronic and cannot be cured, which only makes this even more debilitating to people that have it. But, music has been used for a long time to help people with Alzheimer's, and it is by far one of the most effective ways to help those individuals who suffer from this disease. Here is a video clip of someone with Alzheimer’s, and their reaction to music…
Henry suffers from Alzheimers and seizures, and has trouble responding to even the simplest of questions on a daily basis. I don’t think I have to say much more about this, because this video says it all; music is powerful!