Music is a universal language. It can make you laugh or cry. It can soothe you after a stressful day, or get your blood pumping for a competition. Even more remarkably, music can help you heal. Why do you feel so many emotions when listening to music? How does it affect your health? The answer lies in your brain and the neurochemicals it produces. Listening to music affects brain activity and chemistry, which control moods and physiological responses, suggesting that listening to music could improve your health.
There is a growing interest in music therapy and intervention for patients of physical and mental diseases. According to a review in the American Journal of Public Health, listening to music decreases anxiety and stress and lowers heart and respiration rates.
For cancer patients, music reduced their pain and improved their immune systems, while bolstering their sense of control. Another study also found significant decreases of depression in patients. Victims of post-traumatic stress disorder also experienced improvement while playing instruments or singing, which helped regulate their breathing and heart rates.
The range of health benefits afforded by listening to music all have a strong neurological basis. Listening to music chiefly affects the areas in the brain associated with mood, reward and stress.
In a study by neuropsychologist Daniel Levitin, they found that areas related to the emotional and reward centers of the brain activated while people listened to music. For example, the amygdala and the temporal lobe, both of which play a central role in recognizing and processing emotions, are highly active when music is played. This suggests that music is closely linked to emotional experiences.
Pleasant music activates the ventral tegmental area, which helps control the release of dopamine, a well-known neurochemical that induces feelings of reward and satisfaction.
In addition, listening to pleasant music increases the amount of serotonin and natural opioids in the brain, causing feelings of happiness, relaxation and pain relief. A lack of sufficient serotonin often correlates to depression, which explains why listening to pleasant music has helped alleviate symptoms of depression for patients.
Listening to sad music regulates mood as well. When you experience sad emotions, prolactin is released, which is a hormone that has a tranquilizing and comforting effect on mood. Sad music has a similar effect on you; It “tricks” your brain into recognizing emotions of sadness and releasing prolactin as a response, which suggests why we often turn to sad music to console ourselves during tough times.
Music’s impact on stress cannot be understated either. Listening to music lessens stress by decreasing your body’s levels of cortisol, a primary stress hormone. Additionally, music decreases the arousal levels of the central nervous system, reducing anxiety.
Research has also suggested that the firing of neurons sometimes synchronizes with the beat of the music. Incredibly, the sedating effect of music can be so strong that patients may sometimes require less anesthesia before medical procedures. This effect is also why patients often feel less anxious and less pain during their period of treatment.
On the other hand, music can also excite the body. While pleasant music usually calms the body down, fast and stimulating music produces adrenaline, which increases blood circulation and breathing.
The benefits of this effect are perhaps best seen in athletics. Nearly everyone plugs in their headphones when they go out for their daily jog, and for good reason; The same study by Levitin suggests that stamina, motivation and anaerobic power can all be improved by listening to music while exercising.
The health benefits of music are incredible and plentiful. What is really exciting is that research concerning music therapy and intervention has only just begun to gain momentum within the past decade. There is so much more to discover and learn about the power and ability of music to improve our mental and physical well-being.
And what can you do with this knowledge? Perhaps you’ve already been using music to feel better, but now you know the effects aren’t because of luck, but because of science. So, if you’re feeling harried and stressed by midterms, take a moment, breathe and let some music calm your mind down.
After your classes, take some time to reward yourself by playing some of your favorite tunes. Feeling down because of a bad breakup? It just might be the best idea to blast that one sad Adele song. Music is always there with you, through the good and the bad. While listening to music is not and should not be treated as a cure for mental and physical illnesses, it is certainly reassuring to have it as a helping hand.
Margaret Liu, www.dailycardinal.com, www.msidallas.com