Music and the Brain

My first memory is not a person, not a moment, nor a smell, but a song. The first thing I remember, my very first memory here on earth, is the melody of Raindrops keep falling on my head. As a baby, there must have been a mobile hanging above my crib, with that song gently putting me to sleep every time I had to take a nap. It wasn’t the actual recording, as I still recall the metallic sound of the music box. To this day, this song fills me with a warm fuzzy feeling inside. So what is this connection between music and the brain?

People all over the world wake up to music, stream songs while number crunching at work, blast power playlists when they exercise, and attend concerts on weekends. We instinctively understand the positive effect music has on our brain and we tend to select songs that boost our mood accordingly. The genre of the music actually doesn’t play a big role in the effect it has, as long as it resonates with us. When it comes to music, it really is to each his own. From Heavy Metal over Opera, to Rap, Techno or The Sound of Music. The only thing that matters is that it works for us. Because you see, music makes our brain release dopamine, the neuro-transmitter responsible for pleasure and reward. It’s also released when we eat chocolate or when we have sex, so imagine combining all three… Anyway, my point is that from a brain’s perspective, the pleasure associated is similar. 

Much more than reason, we are before anything else made of emotions. Sure, we are capable of rational thought, but it is our limbic system, home to our emotions, which is our default setting. And music, more than anything else, is capable of tapping into this collection of sometimes raw and strong, sometimes pure and delicate, and often overwhelming emotions. Our memory works with associations, and music is a very powerful part of that. For example, we all have a song associated with our first love. Do you remember which was yours? (Mine was I do it for you from Bryan Adams) It also works the other way around: hearing a song can lead to a flood of memories and emotions that were long forgotten. That’s actually what happened with the Raindrops song from my crib. It’s only way in my thirties, by hearing the song again, that I started to remember how special it was to me…

As said, our memory works with associations. And it is those associations, those personal memories, which make a song special. The more we listen to it, the stronger the neural pathways in our brain become. Now of course, having a song associated to a strong emotional experience will make us appreciated that song so much more. And again, it works both ways: a song can make an experience much more enjoyable. From washing dishes and other household chores, over being stuck in a traffic jam or a long road trip, to working or hitting the gym. Yes, that’s why there is music in your local supermarket, as well as in most waiting rooms, bars and restaurants. And if you really want to understand the power of music, just think about your favorite film and imagine it without music. Suddenly, Di Caprio yelling that he’s the king of the world sounds, well, … let’s say ‘less convincing’.

Music really creates a whole new dimension in our experience of a moment. And science was able to prove this special relationship between music and the brain. We already new that sounds are processed in a special place in the brain, the auditory cortex. However a recent study showed us how within that cortex, music activates a specific set of neurons, which won’t respond to other sounds but music. It turns out that, just like with language, our brain has dedicated (almost) exclusive resources, neural pathways, to processing music. Yes, music receives a truly VIP treatment by our brain.

Listening to music is great, but from a brain’s perspective, playing and/or singing it is even better. Pupils dilate, our heart rate goes up, a little shot of adrenaline makes our senses much more acute. And if we play/sing with others, we start to release Oxytocin as well. You know, the bonding hormone. Besides being emotional beings, we are also deeply social beings and music, when played together, is a social glue. It improves our relationships, by making us bond and trust eachother more. There is this fascinating theory that says that music evolved from prehistoric ritual gatherings where we prepared for hunting and war. Strengthening the ties during those rituals, with singing, helped us later during the hunt or fight to show a greater solidarity and coordination and thus improving our chances for success. Whatever its origins, there is nothing that compares to the awe one experiences whilst singing with 40.000 other people in a stadium, being it during a soccer game or a rock concert.

Music and the brain. It really is a delightful match. So next time you hear your favorite song on the radio, just for those three minutes, stop whatever you’re doing, and take a guilty pleasure trip. Sing along, and enjoy every note of it. Smile. And let that dopamine run through your strengthened neural pathways, reminiscing of whatever connection and association that is being evoked. A distant memory, a lost love, a magical summer, a perfect day, … or just, you know, … good vibes 🙂

And don’t forget to share your favorite song in the comment section below!

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