What’s really going on in our brains when we play music?
What’s really going on in our brains when we play music? MindShift
On any given evening, music is a huge part of our lives. Some argue that music is the unifying force that brings us together, and the ability to listen to music can even help to with adjustment to major life events like moving into a new apartment. While listening to music can help get us ready for a night on the town, does it also impact our mental health?
It might be easier to think of music as a force in the realm of entertainment, but there is a much deeper power at play when it comes to how we listen to music. While listening to music can be cathartic, effective, and fun, the process of playing music can be very rewarding, exciting, and therapeutic in its own right. Studies have shown that any activity that involves direct physical input and feels exciting can have positive and even therapeutic benefits.
A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin found that both of these drivers were true:
The advantages of physical manipulation were aligned with the means of learning by association: “Plays not only promote appreciation for the original instrument but also enhanced performance of related exercises such as cardiovascular exercise or cognitive behavioral therapy.”
The mental stimulation was found to be related to “adjustment and new experiences”: “To the extent music played an active role in the participants’ lives, the sessions induced emotional and cognitive states that could be put to use in coping with new experiences such as employment rejection or financial hardship.”
Such meta-analysis research can’t take the place of any scientific assessment of a music-based intervention, but the underlying logic is that the playing of music can be a powerful link to emotionally healthy individuals, regardless of which stage in life the individual is experiencing at that moment.
My personal experience in live practice, and in my background, is that when we explore the brain and how it functions with audio, there is a trend of creative spillovers. After an intense live recording session, when artists are still just getting their songs perfected, we can feel in the room that the music is still connected to the brain.
Our brain is constantly searching for ways to develop new connections with the world, and its research base is constantly improving. While this might not mean that the connection between music and brain functions is irrefutable, when we listen and feel the obvious correlations, we get a sense of how others might perceive the same connections.
It may come as little surprise to some that listening to any electronic technology (mobile devices in particular) is known to trigger positive changes in brain functioning, but in a similar fashion to how mixing music with other activities can elevate our stress levels, making the process of recording valuable, then releasing the audio in an immediate feedback loop can help us to be more mindful of our experiences.
Music is such a unique experience. Most of us who are regularly exposed to the media in our everyday lives grew up on musicians from earlier generations, perhaps living a little too close to a music festival or going to a concert with a group of friends. Seeing all of these experiences in person and individually is what allows us to create memories in our minds.
Yet each of us has personal lyrics that we connect to, songs that are lodged deep in our soul, songs that can heal us when we are hurt, and songs that can connect us with each other in ways we don’t even fully understand. We can appreciate this all through listening to music.
The jukebox has a lot to teach us about the human brain.