Listening to music is an activity that is a part of nearly every person’s daily life, whether listening in the car, on the radio, in the shower, it is extremely uncommon for anyone not to listen to at least one form of music in their daily lives. The powerful presence of music profoundly affects the way of life of so many people (Schäfer, 2016). Some find that it relaxes them after a stressful day, allowing them to chill out and de-stress, others use it as an adrenaline pump before a workout to increase the heart rate and blood flow around the body (Jabr, 2013), it is also used as an anti-anxiety to those who suffer, or just to get rid of fatigue and boredom. This is all enabled by the thousands of streaming services made available for anyone to access at any time, for example, Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music, which gives access to the millions of different songs right from any device.
Music is used so much in a modern society as it is known to have a huge effect on the brain, the majority of the time having a positive effect and lifting people’s internal vibrations, improving their mood and brain activity, without most people even recognising it. Although, different genres of music have slightly varying effects on different people. When we listen to music, all parts of the brain generally engage with its vibrations simultaneously, resonating with all four of the brain’s major lobes, although, a sequence of actions are carried out by the brain in response to these sounds (Wilkins, 2011). Elena Mannes says, in her book: The Power of Music, “Scientists have found that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function” (Mannes, 2013).
When a stream of musical information enters the brain, it is broken down by the cerebellum into its component parts: timbre, duration, pitch and spatial location. This is connected to the emotional centre of the brain (amygdala) and the frontal lobe which is heavily involved in impulse control. The information is further processed by the mesolimbic system in the brain, the part which contributes to the transmission of neurotransmitters and is also involved in arousal and pleasure (Barnes, 2015). This transmission stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine which creates a feeling commonly referred to as ‘the chills’, a happy, indescribable feeling when an impeccable piece of music is listened to (Lehrer et al., 2011). This is mainly caused by a region of the brain that creates an anticipatory response to the music around 15 seconds before the emotional climax of the musical piece (Saindon, 2014). This prolonged expectation produces extremely powerful emotional responses as a result of its then sudden resolution. This principle has been understood by some of the highest valued composers long before it became scientific fact.
Well-known composers like Beethoven and Bach utilized techniques to prolong the anticipatory response of the emotional climax, for example, modulating the tempo, withholding melodic resolutions and using varying established patterns. It has been found that the emotional response is more powerful the longer an artist holds back the climax (Lehrer et al., 2011). This technique has been manipulated in extreme ways for the use of modern electronic dance music, popularly listened to today, and is commonly known as the ‘bass drop’, although the same mechanism has been used for centuries.
Neurological research has found that rhythm and melodies are both processed differently in the brain. The motor cortex of the brain is triggered in different ways dependant on the style of the music being listened to. Some types of music, specifically those with a groove in the beat, increase corticospinal excitability, which is the cause for the temptation to dance and move the body (Stupacher et al., 2013). As well as this, music with a groove causes blood to be pumped around the body more efficiently, including into the legs and feet, causing the sensation to tap to the beat (Lehrer et al., 2011). Certain rhythms also have the power to change internal cycles such as respiratory patterns and heart rates to sync to the rhythm of the music (Peeples, 2009). Because of this, listening to upbeat, high tempo music during times of high activity like runs, or listening to slower paced music during walks, can make the activity more enjoyable as your heart syncs with the tempo, also improving immune responses in the body (Karageorghis and Terry, 1997). Slower, soothing music like rhythmic drumming is used in meditation it is claimed to put one in a trance-like state, whilst also releasing endorphins which relieve stress (Fancourt et al., 2016). When listening to slower-paced music, the amygdala stimulates the flow of neurotransmitters that enhance the emotions you’re already feeling. The sync of heart rate to music also indicates the potential for music to be used between unalike people to be able to connect emotionally (Barnes, 2015).
The visual cortex is another component of the brain that is active when listening to music. Trusted researcher, Daniel Levitin of music psychology elucidated that this can either be because the listener is imagining movement or imagining watching a performance (Levitin, 2008). Music that some may consider fearful or scary increase activity in the visual cortex further, through an attempt to envision the origins of the minorly distressing sounds (Lieff, 2014). Some also experience visions of colours, known as synaesthesia, which can also be explained by these responses of the visual cortex (Mitchell, 2013).
As music can activate substantial sections of the brain, it holds the strong capability to stimulate many of the neurological pathways throughout the brain that store memories and therefore elicit them (Sergo, 2013). The connection that music makes between the brain and the listener’s emotions, influences the brain to increase the significance of the memories induced. This can be so powerful that it is often used in music therapy to aid those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, improving their state of mind and help better their condition. Music has also been used in studies researching the ‘Mozart effect’ when it’s been shown to improve memory whilst studying, especially in younger persons and children, further supporting its ability to enhance memory recall (Jenkins, 2001).
Alongside stimulating vast areas of the brain, music also improves its function. This is because of the engagement between all four of the brain’s lobes, leads to the strengthening of the neural circuit activity in minds that are not yet fully developed (Barnes 2015).
Pop and rap music, alongside country and reggae all have similar effects on the brain’s response. These four genres of music are more repetitive than others and are more likely to playback in the head after listening to them. This is because neurotransmitters are sent via the auditory cortex, enabling the brain to process its rhythmic beat, causing an increased pace of blood circulation, and therefore resulting in a sensation to dance and sing along in the listener. Despite this, the increase in blood circulation makes the listener less calm (Lightner, 2015). Pop music has also seen to enhance physical performance whilst also improving endurance, although simultaneously viewed as a distraction from working. Meanwhile, rap stimulates motor function and processing in the brain whilst improving motivation, language and emotion.
Metal music is believed to help cope with certain feelings that are hard and troublesome to deal with including those of stress, depression and suicidal thoughts. This is due to the strong tempo and drumbeats of the music alongside the loud screams and growls which causes the activity of the brain increase dramatically. Although, despite common beliefs that metal and heavy metal music can cause anger, sadness and depression, research has suggested that the reaction from the brain listening to heavy metal music can in fact calm the listener. This has seen to be especially effective in listeners who are already enraged, bringing them peace and reducing anger (Labbé, Schmidt, Babin and Pharr, 2007). Heavy metal music elicits a sense of identify and a knack for community development.
Classical music, unlike rap or pop music, is created with more complexity in its different sections, constantly changing, instead of just using repetition (Lightner, 2015). This has been found to initiate calmness and pleasure in the listener, causing an enhancement of dopamine secretion, synaptic function and the release of stress hormones. The ‘Mozart Effect’ study discovered that classical music holds the ability to improve productive brain activity in children effectively making them ‘smarter’ (Jenkins, 2001). Another study found classical music to aid in the improvement of visual attention in patients who have previously suffered from a stroke (Tsai et al., 2013).
Jazz music has been found to have a strong effect on hormone levels in the body, being especially effective at relieving stress whilst also releasing any tension held in the body’s muscles by lowering heart and respiratory rate. As well as this, Jazz is known to evoke positive feelings, reducing any negative emotions one may carry, reducing cortisol levels. This genre of music provides increased mental stimulation as it pushes the brain to mimic its rhythmic patterns, creating a ‘call and response’ between the musical instruments, thus increasing brain activity. As a large variety of instruments are used to produce jazz music, it further promotes abstract processing in the listener’s mind, increasing levels of creativity (Ali, 2018).
Everybody processes music differently and this effect differs from person to person, for example, some genres of music motivate people and help them study, whereas the same genre could have a completely opposing effect. Although, music undoubtedly aids the brain’s function and processing, dependant on preferred music choice. This is explored by a study from the University of Cambridge revealing the workings of peoples brains according to music taste (Greenberg et al., 2015). It has also been suggested that listening to several genres of music improves brain activity. “If you are bimusical, you tend to engage a larger network of the brain when you listen to the two kinds of music” (Wong, 2012).