Mindful Monday: Music and Your Brain….


Music is intended to move us; from the beginning of time, devotion and tradition were celebrated with movement and dance – some of the oldest artefacts to be found were even musical instruments.

It wasn’t until the medieval times that the church decided to limit movement, until you were told when to dance and how to dance. Do we still limit ourselves to this today? Maybe even subconsciously, when we’re dancing, we’re following the form of what we think is acceptable and ‘right’, rather than letting go and experiencing how the body wants to move.

‘Most of us would be shocked if audience members at a symphonic concert got out of their chairs and clapped their hands, whooped, hollered, and danced as is de rigueur at a James Brown concert. But the reaction to James Brown is certainly closer to our true nature. The polite listening response, in which music has become an entirely cerebral experience (even music’s emotions are meant, in the classical tradition, to be felt internally and not to cause a physical outburst) is counter to our evolutionary history. Children often show the reaction that is true to our nature: Even at classical music concerts they sway and shout and generally participate when they feel like it. We have to train them to behave “civilized.”‘

– Daniel J Levitin.  This is Your Brain on Music

So you see, it is in our nature to have a connection to music….

The body directly reacts to the music we hear; Brainwaves resonate with the rhythm of music, and from this brain activity, the heartbeat and breath also try to match the rhythms too. This goes a long way to explaining why up-beat music makes us feel more energetic and excited – it’s literally physically changing us! The only two animals this happens to on earth are humans and songbirds….

Whether you enjoy a piece of music matters a lot in how it will positively or negatively effect you, or whether it will have the desired effect…. Yes, smooth piano, classical and jazz music have been shown to relax us – but not if you don’t enjoy it! If metal is what genuinely relaxes you, then that could work just as well….


Curing pain with music: 

Calm, soothing music which you enjoy listening to can reduce levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol. When cortisol levels in the body are lowered, we are able to move away from the ‘fight or flight’ or ‘stress response’ we’re so habitually locked in to, and instead allow the parasympathetic nervous system to take over , allowing the ‘relaxation response’ to occur, which sets the body up for self-repair and optimal health.

‘Pleasant’ music (again, which we enjoy) can boost levels of serotonin – a ‘feel good’ neuro-transmitter which is important for overall happiness and wellbeing. Classical music especially, is closely linked to beating insomnia and promoting the release of dopamine in to the brain and inhibiting stress hormones because of the effects the music has on our brainwaves; slowing them down and therefore calming the nervous system.

The hippocampus is engaged when we’re listening to music – this is a part of the brain which stores long-term memories (it’s also larger and more active in females, which might explain why women forgive… but never forget.) Because of this brain activity, music has the ability to bring back past memories and feelings, even if we assume we have forgotten about them – this is a technique which can be used in sound therapy to help unlock past ‘stuck’ emotions, and has also been able to bring back past memories of those with Alzheimer’s.

What’s going on in there?:

While pitch and rhythm are primarily functions of the left brain hemisphere, and timbre and melody are more of a right-brain job; those who study music actually tend to use both sides of the brain more than those who don’t (and there aren’t many day-to-day tasks which involve us using both brain hemispheres). There’s a difference though; if the music has no words at all – the right brain hemisphere lights up dominantly, and processes the sounds just as much as the left brain processes things like language interpretation. So when we’re listening to even the most minimalist, instrumental music, the right brain is working just as much as we would do when engaged in conversation and interpreting speech.

When we hear a song that gives us gosebumps and really makes us feel something, that is the brain releasing dopamine – THE ‘feel good’ brain chemical associated with the ‘pleasure center of the brain’ – released during exercise, sex, eating, and achieving new goals.

Every song you’ve ever heard is stored in a part of the brain called the ‘superior temporal gyrus’ which is related to long term memory; when you hear something completely new, your brain compares it to all the other music you’ve ever heard, and if it decides the music is good, you’ll get a release of dopamine. These neural pathways can be determined by experiences you relate to these types of music – which could explain why Christmas music can make some of us feel ‘Christmassy’. (whether ‘christmassy’ is a horrible feeling for you or not is of course personal….)

‘Cultural ear’:

So why is a song that sounds ridiculous to us, number one in a different country? Why do some cultures produce mountains of electro-pop, while others prefer acoustic? Again, it comes down to what’s stored in the ‘superior temporal gyrus’ – if a lot of people in one country recognise the rhythms and pitch, relate that sound to something positive, and it measures up pretty well against the other music stored in there, then it’s likely to be a success…. Now you see why sometimes, on the radio ‘everything just sounds the same!’.

So, the next time you’re creating a playlist, writing music, or listening to the radio – realise that even with the most simple rhythm or melody, music is more powerful than it seems….

‘After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music’

– Aldous Huxley

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