How many individuals, if asked, do you think would want to have a soundtrack to their lives? I suspect that many, given the chance, would have an interesting time with a band or orchestra underscoring every moment that they experience. More to the point, why is this something that anybody would want? I’ve talked a bit about cognitive processes and how music can serve as a sort of cross-cultural emotional shorthand, but I’d like to take some time to delve a bit deeper into the association between our brains and music.
Music has come a long way over centuries. Primitive drums have been joined by synthesizers and everything in between while barely changing in concept or execution. Endless genres have been constructed, deconstructed, and explored, but to what end?
Music may very well help us process emotions. Studies have shown that listening to sad music in times of trouble may actually aid in feeling better in the long term. In this case, music was compared to an empathic friend, reflecting the experiences of those suffering and helping them come to terms with their own thoughts. Similarly, listening to happy music can often instantaneously improve mood—subject participants were able to compel themselves to be happier when listening to upbeat tunes.
These findings may have something to do with the discovery that out heartbeats synchronize with music that we hear, implying an impact on a physiological level in addition to a cognitive one. With this in mind, some composers are choosing to craft music with the specific intent of affecting the mood of listeners. Some of these pieces are not music in the traditional sense, but tones intended to activate certain areas of the brain.
Experiments such as these pave the way for the ever-growing field of music therapy, meant to ease pain, improve morale, and reduce anxiety, particularly for patients undergoing treatment or surgery. At the moment, it’s something of an imprecise science, but the beauty of music therapy is that it is completely noninvasive and inexpensive.
Notably, music therapy does not only include listening to music, but also singing, playing instruments, and chanting. These sessions are often guided and combined with traditional relaxation therapy tactics, and for some exercises, patients get to pick the music. For most, they select music that was significant to them at one point in their lives as a way to revisit happy memories and promote tranquility—though doctors have reported patients selecting music from every genre.
Often, performance as a part of therapy is done as part of a group, which is proven to foster feelings of unity and belonging. Plus, it gives patients something to occupy their time and goals to strive for when they’re in the hospital for extended periods of time. These performances aren’t just done for entertainment, they also sow empathy among participants.
What’s fascinating about music therapy is that it taps into both ways that music affects our brains—through memory and through primal emotion. I’ve already mentioned both; the fact that music can elicit a physical reaction, and the tendency of individuals to associate songs with certain times in their lives.
Even growing up, music has a profound impact on us. Singing and dancing are all natural things for babies and toddlers to attempt, and much like the group music therapy mentioned above, promotes socialization amongst kids, to the point where child dance classes are fairly common.
Around the world, music is a common element in every culture, regardless of the form it takes. Harnessing the power of music, society can help make people happier and healthier.