The many benefits of music
Updated: Jul 25
This article was developed from my comments in Stylist
Researchers at the University of Southern California back in 2017 outlined 3 key responses when we listen to music:
Neural (the brain’s response)
NEURAL: THE BRAIN
Music is rewarding
Research has shown that music has the power to stimulate the pleasure centres in our brain, notably the neuro-transmitter dopamine, and when that is triggered it can be a major factor in repetition of a behaviour. Even with unpleasant behaviours (eg Rats’ dopamine pathways were stimulated when they pressed a lever which gave them an electric shock and they STILL continued to press it), if dopamine is activated, we will continue to engage in them (or at least it can be very hard to stop). When it comes to music though – it can be very positive and either energising or relaxing in addition to the sense of pleasure.
Music can change our mood and we form associations with songs
On the point of the bonus of music also being able to change our mood, our brains make associations very easily – it is how we learn, and when there is emotion attached, we tend to learn faster. If we have had the experience of a certain song making us feel good, or energising, relaxing, comforting (and so on) us – we can almost be sure that listening to it again will generate those same feelings…then the more we continue to pair the song and the feeling, the more predictable the mood change will be and we will tend to reach for that playlist whenever we need it.
Music triggers memories
Additionally to the emotions generated by the music itself, we may also associate memories with songs. We are likely to hold happy memories of a song at our wedding, or perhaps reflective and warm ones with the music for a loved one’s funeral – and may also tend to reach for that song when we want to think about those people, or experiences we may have had where music played a part.
Music is “Predictable”
Although a strange thing to say, a song that we know well can bring us comfort through its predictability – not just in how it makes us feel – but knowledge of the composition itself. Having a sense of certainty eg. I know this verse will go here…can give us a much needed sense of control – especially in an unpredictable time (like the last 2 years!) However, research by Gebauer & Kringelback in 2012 suggested that we appreciate complexity in music, and related to this are anecdotal reports from Musical Directors who suggest that recorded music is less enjoyable because it sounds “too precise”…one MD I’ve worked with asked his girlfriend to play the flute over a sequenced soundtrack to give a sense of “live” sound.
Music can also stimulate action
We’ve all had the experience of tapping our hands or feet to a rhythm, and this physical activation can also stimulate positive emotions. Further, when others are doing it as well, there can be a sense of community generating the production of oxytocin…thus emphasising the pleasure in the moment…and so we’ll listen to that song again!!
SO, HOW CAN I USE THIS INFORMATION?
If you are looking to change your mood, engage with pleasant memories, or generate a sense of comfort, music may be one option to consider. Unlike my husband, I don't listen to music as a matter of habit - I love dancing to it, for many years I have also choreographed and directed musicals in community theatre, and I do have a number of songs I love because they do exactly what this tin (article) is suggesting - they change my mood, and now I think about it, there's nothing that makes me feel more joyful at Christmas than wrapping presents to the sound of classic Christmas hits!
Consider building yourself a playlist - perhaps for different moods, and then accessing that as a quick way to create the emotional state you're seeking.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt