Sonic Brainwave

What would life be without music? According to Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, poet and cultural critic, life without music would be a mistake. This may seem a rather radical statement on the role that music plays in our lives, but it is entirely true; the importance of music in our world cannot be overstated. Music, it seems, has always played a major role in each and every society and tribal community throughout the course of human history, all of which had some form of music that was influenced by their culture. It is believed that the origins of music itself may possibly date back around 55,000 years. What’s more, the power and influence of music goes further than that level of societal and cultural importance; music “expresses that which cannot be said” (Victor Hugo), it “gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything” (Plato). In the words of Jimi Hendrix, “music is a safe kind of high”, and a high it most certainly is.

It seems as though the power and influence of music holds no boundaries. Music has the capacity to evoke strong emotional responses from within us; music can make us feel euphorically happy and elated; music can make us feel intense sadness through sound alone, or through nostalgia for the memories that we attach to particular songs. Music is very strongly connected to memory. Just as we associate particular smells with different people or places, we associate particular songs with different memories; “I’ll Be There For You”, the Friends theme tune, will forever and always bring me back to my graduation night in secondary school. We also associate particular songs with particular people; the song your crush showed you will most likely remind you of them, or you’ll remember slow dancing with your boyfriend or girlfriend to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” whenever that song is played. A study carried out in 2009 by University of California, Davis, which mapped the brain while people listened to music, found that specific brain regions that are linked to autobiographical memories and emotions are activated when we listen to familiar music. The author of the study, Petr Janata, said “What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye… Now we can see the association between those two things — the music and the memories”. These little phenomena beg the question: What does music actually do to us, to our brains, when we listen to it? Here are just a few of the occurrences explained…

What is actually happening up there, in our brains? First, the auditory cortex decomposes the music into its most basic, fundamental features such as volume and pitch; it works with the cerebellum to break down the musical information into its component parts: pitch, timbre, spatial location and duration. This information is processed by higher-order brain structures which analyse these components of the music and create a rich experience for the listener. The cerebellum has connections with the brain’s emotional centre, the amygdala, which is heavily involved in impulse control. The amygdala is processed by the mesolimbic system, which is involved in arousal, pleasure and the transmission of neurotransmitters like dopamine. This initiates a dopamine rush – the same dopamine rush we feel while eating deliciously satisfying food or having sex – producing that sensational feeling of “chills”. So yes, music is up there among the greatest joys in life; food and sex.

The Power of the Beat. According to neuroscience, our brains process rhythm differently to melody. Researchers led by Michael Thaut of Colorado State University’s Center for Biomedical Research in Music found pattern, meter and tempo processing tasks activated “right, or bilateral, areas of frontal, cingulate, parietal, prefrontal, temporal and cerebellar cortices,” while tempo processing “engaged mechanisms sub serving somatosensory and premotor information”. This has led to some intriguing discoveries: groovy music promotes corticospinal excitability, which is the cause of the strong urge to dance. Music can also cause blood to pump into the muscles in our legs, which many believe is what causes people to tap their feet. Rhythm can cause changes in heart rate and respiratory patterns, which can result in these internal cycles falling into sync with the music.

“I see music. It’s more than just what I hear.” Could Beyoncé be right here? Can one see music? Do you find yourself imagining yourself featuring in a music video for the song your listening to, creating scenarios and going through all the drama in your head? This is because listening to music activates the visual cortex found at the back of the brain in the occipital lobe. Research has found that some music caused listeners to conjure up appropriate imagery to match the changes, progression and mood of the music they were listening to. And so, there is in fact scientific validity behind Beyoncé’s claim that she can see music. Nice one, Bey.

Can music heal? Yes, it can. Research carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) has shown that one in five young adults aged 19-24 experience mental health problems. Alternative treatment methods include art therapy, meditation and yoga, but music, because of its universality, easy accessibility and transmission, has perhaps the greatest potential in terms of alternative methods of therapy, and can aid people who may be unable to access other forms of care. Controlled treatment outcome studies have shown that music therapy improves symptoms and social functioning among schizophrenics. Music therapy has also proven efficient in independent treatment for reducing depressionanxiety and chronic pain. In the UK-based Journal of Advanced Nursing, a paper from 2006 about the ‘Effect of music on power, pain, depression and disability’ stated that listening to music can reduce chronic pain from a range of painful conditions, including osteoarthritis, disc problems and rheumatoid arthritis, by up to 21% and depression by up to 25%.

Music has a positive effect on health in three main ways. Firstly, through the positive physical effects of music, which include direct biological changes such as reducing heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels. Secondly, relatable and thought provoking lyrics that act as a way through which we can express ourselves help us to increase positive thought, aid in our ability to empathise and promote helping behaviour; music along with lyrics touches people, and may be able to reach more people than psychotherapists could. This ties in with the final mechanism, that music is a connecting experience; it brings us together, and research has shown that improved social connection and support, which can be brought about through music, can improve overall mental health outcomes, and have a profound impact on individuals’ mental health.

Now you know why you get those indescribable, incredible feeling ‘chills’ when you hear the songs you love; the goose bumps that prickle your skin, moving in a wave over your arms, emanating from that shiver down your spine. You know why your heart flutters, and falls into sync with the rhythm of the music; the music is evoking emotion and you are experiencing such powerful feeling, all of which is caused by the sound; the beat, the tone, the timbre, the rhythm, the lyrics, all combined…. There is hard scientific and biological reasoning behind the why and how music makes us feel the way that is does. How incredibly awesome is that?  

This article was originally published in the 2016/2017 UCC Express, in February 2017, available online from March 1st 2017 at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s