I lay in my bed listening to the endless stream of music coming through my headphones. My iTunes is on shuffle, some songs I skip but most of them I let play without interference. Zoning out only enough to let my mind wonder, I relax and take in the sounds surrounding me. I feel restful, at piece. A brief moment of silence from the time one song ends and another begins. I hear the first five notes on a piano — instantly, I have a lump in my throat, my heart quickens, and my eyes begin to sting. “Through the Years” by Kenny Rogers has just come on.
After fifteen seconds of a piano introduction, Rogers’ soothing voice starts in, “I can’t remember when you weren’t there… I am reminded of my family. I am taken back to a time when all my grandparents were still alive and well. My father’s mother’s face comes into view, she has been gone twelve years but I can almost feel her presence. I think of the love my family and I have for each other. I think of my sister. My cheeks and ears begin to feel warm. The air I’m breathing suddenly becomes thick, my vision is blurred by the water filling my eyes.
The chorus begins, “Through the years…” My eyes overflow and tears silently fall down my face. After the second chorus the song builds on itself, it rises and keeps on rising. The tension is broken by Rogers’ voice full of love and sincerity at the bridge. I have graduated from softly crying to full on sobbing. My face, my ears, my neck and my pillow are wet with tears. What I am crying about, I am not entirely certain of. What I am certain of, however, is that this wave of emotion that I am drowning in was induced solely by this song.
Now in the fetal position, cuddling the blanket and bear that I have had since I was born, I gasp and choke a deep breath in and cough it out as I sob. “As long as it’s okay / I’ll stay with you / Through the years” The song ends, and after a short while I return to the restful state I was in prior to my breakdown, noticeably more tired. All of this because of a song. This experience and countless others like it (varying in memories and emotions) that made me wonder about the power of music.
We have all been influenced by music at one point in our lives; oose bumps, shivers, hair standing on end, tears, dancing, tapping to the beat. Music is all around us, and it is there no matter where you go; it transcends borders and cultures, it is the one universal thing that does. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it best: “Music is the universal language of mankind. ” Music has the ability to elicit emotions and trigger memories of our past, transporting us to a specific moment or time in our lives. Music can help us cope, the proof of this is in the success of break-up songs. We rely on music.
But, what is it about music that makes it so powerful? How is it able to influence us the way it does? Studying music from a scientific approach is relatively new practice, especially music and its effects on the brain. Thanks to advances in neuroscience such a study is made possible. Neuroscientists use fMRI and PET scans to study the brain and what music does to it. When we listen to music different parts of our brain are stimulated. What scientists have learned is that music activates more areas of the brain than anything else.
Elena Mannes, author of the book The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song, identifies some of parts and functions of the brain that are used to process music: …the auditory cortex (first stage in the listening process, perception and analysis of tones), the motor cortex (foot tapping, playing an instrument), the prefrontal cortex (the creation of expectations triggered by musical patterns and the violation of patterns/expectations), the sensory cortex (tactile feedback, as in playing an instrument), the visual cortex (reading music), the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala (emotional reactions), the hippocampus (memory for music), the cerebellum (also movement and emotional reactions). (Mannes, 32).
When we listen to music our brain is actually extracting something from the music and making sense of it. Some scientists believe that this could contribute to our brain’s ability to remember songs so well. (Kunz). An intriguing aspect of music and how we relate to it is our seemingly instinctual ability to analyze a piece of music. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University, discusses in his book, This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, how our brain perceives and understands music.
When we start out we have thousands of neurons in our brains that are completely free, not tied down or associated to anything. However, as we grow and learn, these neurons are shaped by experience and make connections. Through our experiences our brains learn the rules of whatever music we are exposed to. For example, we have songs that we recognize as happy or sad, even if it is only an instrumental piece. We are able to recognize the mood or feeling of a song from its elements; in Western society we tend to associate a fast tempo with energy and spiritedness and a slow tempo with sadness. These associations, or connections, are learned from our experiences. (Levitin, 87-89).
There are a variety of different factors that contribute to our physical and emotional reactions to music. Music often mirrors the natural world and picks up on cues that are prevalent in human behavior. Expectations not fulfilled, surprise, when something happens not as planned, often in life these are what elicit our strongest emotions. Composers employ structural devices that imitate these real-life occurrences and thereby prompt a reaction from the listener. An easily relatable physical reaction to music is called frisson, or more commonly referred to as goose bumps or shivers down one’s spine. These reactions can and are most commonly achieved through the use of an enharmonic change.
A simple example (in simple terms, the following chords and notes do not actually exist) of an enharmonic change is when chord(x) is played and harmonizes melody note(a), (this chord is often played again at least once, if not more) then chord(y) is played and re-harmonizes melody note(a), so it is the same but different. The composer creates an expectation and then those expectations are not carried out and that elicits a reaction from the listener (Mannes, 283). A myriad of elements contribute to the influencing power music has over our emotions. Two of the main reasons people listen to music is for emotional impact and regulation (Chanda and Levitin, 180).
Music can provide us with a wide range of feelings, such as happiness, sadness, excitement and tranquility Music is also known to produce feelings of euphoria, and what some even describe as a high. Scientists have discovered the reason for this so-called high: the areas in the brain that are activated by drugs or during sex are also activated by listening to music that we enjoy. Listening to pleasurable music activates the production of neurochemicals. The most recognizable chemical that is produced is dopamine, the feel-good hormone, a neurotransmitter responsible for mood regulation. Prolactin, the comfort or satisfaction hormone, normally associated with mothers breastfeeding their infant, is also produced.
The third chemical produced is oxytocin, the cuddle or trust hormone commonly associated with sex and bonding with other people. The production of these hormones explain the “euphoric” feeling people sometimes experience when listening to music. These hormones also influence our mood and perception (Chanda and Levitin180; Mannes, 35). Another factor that contributes to our emotional response to music is our emotional connection to a song. Often times, memories that we associate with a particular song that we heard in a particular time in our lives are triggered when we hear that song. Researchers have found that there is a significant difference in brain activity when we hear a song that we have emotional connections to.
A potential and simple explanation for this is that we are not only processing the music but we are also recalling past events. Memories are stored as proteins in different parts of our brains, when memories are triggered, different parts of the brain are put into action to recall those memories. Both functions (processing music and remembering) use a large portion of our brain on their own, combine the two and that is a lot of brain activity (Kunz). Memories triggered by music are often times much more powerful than when triggered simply by thought. For example, a friend might say, “Do you remember when…” and we reminisce with our friend about a time or an event of past.
We may laugh, or feel a sentimental twinge of longing, but usually, not more than that. When a memory is triggered by a song, however, we are somehow transported back in time and are able to experience the feelings we had at that time. There has been speculation for why our memories are much more vivid when triggered by music. Some have theorized that because our brain has already done the work of processing a particular piece of music, we recognize that we have done it before. The recognition of that precise action manifests itself through our feelings. For example, when I hear the song “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, I am immediately taken back to the summer of 2006.
I am instantly overcome with a feeling that I can only describe as being the feeling I felt the summer I was sixteen. It’s a happy feeling; a feeling of freedom mixed with confusion and carelessness. My senses are activated; I am able to smell the salt air from the beach, I can taste the Arizona Raspberry Iced Tea that I perpetually consumed, I am almost able to feel my jean shorts around my legs, I even have a clear vision of Highway 33 from the passenger’s seat of mine and my sister’s car as we make our way to the beach, the scene before me shaded by the sunglasses I wore. When a memory is triggered by one of the senses, the other senses are triggered as well. Our senses dictate what we perceive, and therefore, influence how we feel.
At that time in my life when my brain was processing that song, it was also processing all of my other senses, all of these elements combined and gave me a very specific feeling. So now when I hear that song, my brain processes it and says something like, Oh, I have done this before, this is the result. It can be likened to muscle memory (Kunz). Intrigued by the power music has, I interviewed Matthew J. Kunz, a researcher currently exploring potential methods to treat patients suffering from neurological injuries and illnesses. One medium of particular interest to him is forms of music therapy. It has been proven that music engages and even enhances motor and auditory skills.
Music could potentially serve as a form of physical therapy after an injury or an illness that has impaired an individual’s motor skills. A great example of this is Parkinson’s disease. Humans are instinctively able to march or walk to a beat. By providing someone with a rhythm track their actions, e. g. walking, could be improved if accompanied by music (Kunz). Another neurological illness that is being treated by music is Alzheimer’s disease. However severe a dementia is, even if the patient has lost language, they almost never seem to lose the memory or ability to respond to music. Not only can it assist in the recalling of memories but it can also strengthen areas of the brain. Some music therapists have the patient learn and play music.
Somehow, the ability to do this stays in their brain, once the song is in there (their brain) it stays. Through learning and playing music the patient exercises their brain, and as a result, functions of the brain, like motor skills, are improved. Even severely demented patients will recognize old songs and be delighted by them. Kunz confesses, “If nothing else, the patients are able to experience joy. Even if that’s the only thing it gave them, it would be worth the work that is being done now. ” Kunz’s heart is in the right place regardless of the outcome of the research, however, studies have already shown the positive benefits of the diverse forms of musical therapy (Kunz).
Whether we want to feel rapture and be delighted by something, or shed a few tears, if we are in need of therapy, or simply want to break the silence, music is there for us. The power music holds is so strong that we depend on it and integrate it to nearly every aspect of our lives. Ill, or injured, or completely well, music is therapeutic to us all; it can bring groups of people together or provide a sense of company when one is alone. It makes our highest highs higher and our lowest lows lower, but that is the magic and power of music. I am certain that our existence and experience as human beings would be far less than what it is if it were not for music.