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The magic of music and how it affects your brain

How does your brain understand music? Why do some people find working while wired for sound most productive? And why is it that Bach makes you feel inspired, while it drives your best friend crazy?

You’re in the office – struggling to be productive – and are astounded that your co-workers are almost constantly plugged into some sort of music. How on earth do they concentrate? Or maybe you’re the one plugged in – and can’t imagine getting through the day without your music fix. While you listen, you experience a range of emotions. Why is it that you suddenly feel the way you do?

We clearly have individual preferences when it comes to music but, in spite of these preferences, research has shown that our brains experience music in much the same way. Daniel Abrams from Stanford University School of Medicine played four symphonies by William Boyce to participants who had no musical training while they underwent an MRI scan. The research found that the effect on their brains was almost identical, in that it activated the areas of the brain involved in movement, planning, attention and memory.

Essentially, listening to music is not simply processing sound, but rather it causes a more meaningful response in the brain. All sounds are processed in the auditory complex, but music activates other areas of the brain as well, including areas commonly associated with memory and emotions.

Our emotional connection
Music can make us feel happy or sad. In fact, our brains respond differently to music that is happy or sad. Interestingly, connected to this, there are perceived emotions and felt emotions. This means that we can understand that a piece of music is sad without actually feeling sad ourselves.

A neuroscientist from McGill University believes that, because music affects our brains in much the same way, it is unifying. You only have to be at a rock concert to know that this is true. Research conducted by neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor showed that listening to music releases the “feel good” hormone dopamine, changing the chemistry in your brain. So many people use music the same way others might use drugs although, of course, there are no terrible side-effects. Listening to whatever music works for you can make you feel “lighter,” improve your mood and make you work more creatively and productively.

Our intellectual connection
Some researchers believe that music has played an important role in human evolution. Because music is repetitive, and our brains like repetition, music is hugely beneficial in helping babies to learn language.

But does it make us more intelligent? The short answer is no. The music itself does not make you, or your baby, smarter. What is important is the way it makes you feel.

These feelings are what enable you to complete cognitive tasks more effectively, and so seem “smarter.”

In addition, because music has the ability to make us feel good, it can be used to help reduce pain, speed up recovery and improve dementia symptoms. Many cyclists and runners will testify that music even improves their endurance. Mostly this is because listening to music helps to drown out our brain’s desperate cry of “Stop – you’re tired!” Not only is it easier to “push through the pain” while listening to music, a 2012 study reported in Scientific American showed that music can help us use energy more efficiently. In this study, cyclists who listened to music required 7% less oxygen than those who cycled in silence.

What about the children?
Most people would agree that learning a musical instrument is beneficial for children, but the extent of these benefits may surprise you. A study has shown that children who learned a musical instrument for three or more years performed significantly better in auditory discrimination, fine motor skills, vocabulary and non-verbal reasoning skills such as identifying similarities and relationships between patterns and shapes.

Science has shown that when children learn to play a musical instrument, their brains begin to hear and process sounds that they couldn’t otherwise hear. This ability to distinguish different sounds is a great aid in developing literacy, which may eventually result in better academic performance. The key here, though, is participation. Simply attending a music enrichment class and listening to music does not have the same effect. It is only when a child is “making music” that the brain starts to rewire pathways.

We can work it out
So it’s clear that we are definitely not unaffected by music. Is it a good idea, therefore, to listen to music while we work? It can be beneficial, yes. And while the choice of music doesn’t seem to matter, volume is important. Loud music tends to impair our creative thinking because the brain is overwhelmed and struggles to process information efficiently. Moderate noise may actually enhance creativity. It would appear that moderate noise level increases processing difficulty just enough to promote abstract processing, and therefore a heightened level of creativity. So just enough noise makes our brains struggle just enough to make our approach to problem-solving more creative.

Some studies have shown that listening to music while driving, however, may not be such a great idea. Subjects tended to drive more aggressively and make more mistakes while listening to their own choice of music. But no music is also not a good idea – the study showed that boring or unfamiliar music is best for safe driving.

Pick your genre
Just for fun, this list from a study conducted at Heriot-Watt University shows how different types of music correspond to personality. Where do you fit in?

  • Blues fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle and at ease
  • Jazz fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing and at ease
  • Classical music fans have high self-esteem, are creative, introverted and at ease
  • Rap fans have high self-esteem and are outgoing
  • Opera fans have high self-esteem, are creative and gentle
  • Country and western fans are hardworking and outgoing
  • Reggae fans have high self-esteem, are creative, not hardworking, outgoing, gentle and at ease
  • Dance fans are creative and outgoing but not gentle
  • Indie fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard working, and not gentle
  • Bollywood fans are creative and outgoing
  • Rock/heavy metal fans have low self-esteem, are creative, not hard-working, not outgoing, gentle, and at ease
  • Chart pop fans have high self-esteem, are hardworking, outgoing and gentle, but are not creative and not at ease
  • Soul fans have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle, and at ease

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