Nine Minute Medicine? Your Brain on Music

by Aviram Nessim, October 22, 2022

The intense rise and fall of chords, flow of rhythm, intricate melody, and extensive variation of tonality as instruments play a unique tune — these are the typical sounds an individual hears while actively listening to music. Music, or sounds amalgamated to produce beauty of form and harmony, is a ubiquitous companion to people’s everyday lives. It is a universal human relic, confirmed to have originated approximately 35,000 years ago (Smithsonian, 2021). At present, the average American listens to over 32 hours of music on a weekly basis, and there are good reasons for why (Lupis, 2017). Music has an extraordinary capacity to stimulate emotions and alter mood. Its sheer power can have profound biological effects both internally and externally: it can affect blood pressure and heart rate internally, and cause spine-tingling, chills, and even sadness externally (Manning-Schaffel, 2017). 

In 2020, a study conducted by the British Academy of Sound Therapy (BAST) exposed 7,581 subjects to various intervals of music (encompassing driving rhythm and fast tempo) to investigate whether music can be prescribed for specific mood states. The study concluded that just nine minutes of music was sufficient enough to emotionally stimulate virtually every subject (Westmore, 2020). For every 10 subjects, 9 reported improved energy levels and 8 reported an enlivened outlook on life. In thirteen minutes of exposure, 8 of every 10 subjects reported elimination of negative thoughts as well as decreased muscle tension. In the same timeframe, a whopping 9 out of 10 subjects reported having increased levels of focus as well as enhanced performance throughout the work day.  

With such powerful analgesic effects, how precisely is music able to stimulate the body? Music primarily activates specific neural pathways located within the auditory, limbic, and prefrontal brain regions (McCollum, 2019). These parts of the brain are synchronized; levels of physiological activity are influenced through the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and cortisol. Thus, regions of the brain that register rewarding stimuli, altruistic acts, and subjective enjoyment are activated (Sachs et al., 2019). By influencing levels of activity within the brain, the body effectively responds, undergoing transient changes in physiology, which, in turn, can have the same mood-enhancing qualities on the psyche as over-the-counter remedies that target anxiety, insomnia, and stress (Landau, 2018).

Regardless of one’s ailment, music therapy, or usage of “singing, music play, improvisation, songwriting, and music-assisted imagery that address the emotional and developmental needs of individuals of all ages” is an effective therapy that should continue to be widely implemented within the medical community (Yale New Haven…). By utilizing neuroscience, music is a powerful, restorative analgesic that has withstood the advances of modern medicine. A seemingly unlikely therapeutic, music is admired for alleviating the dreadful effects of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body, and Parkinson’s by serving alongside the current array of prescribed therapies. In patients with Parkinson’s Disease (PD), between 45% and 68% of people with PD will sustain a fall each year (Pelicioni et al., 2019). However, upon exposure to targeted music therapy, a study found that over a 16-week period, 47 subjects with PD reported an improvement in velocity, cadence, and stride length, as well as a significant decrease in the occurrence of falls (Malhas, 2018). According to Wang et al. (2022), rhythmic auditory stimulation (that is, an application of targeted music therapy) allows for a variation between the “on” and “off” dopaminergic states, suggesting that upon an auditory stimulation of familiar music, the release of dopamine serves as an integral player in improving spatio-temporal parameters as well as overall parkinsonian gait (Erra et al., 2019).   

Besides the aforementioned emotional capabilities music has on daily life and health, music is also being utilized as a vehicle for social change to bring communities together. Choral repertories such as bands, chorus, and common musical groups have been around for thousands of years and, through an infectious beat, audacious gimmick, or catchy chorus, propagate messages of motivation, inspiration, and self-empowerment to inspire and alter the status quo of its listeners (Perrot, 2020). The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic raised important questions about the role of music in society, namely as a medium for coping with the crisis. As the world went into lockdown, communal initiatives were undertaken to provide solace and comfort. Andrea Bocelli performed a solo Easter concert from an empty Milan cathedral, John Legend streamed live concerts from his residence, and cellist Yo-Yo-Ma spearheaded the #Songsofcomfort campaign to offer tranquility amid the time of crisis. Upon an 2021 analysis of Indian civilians who were in lockdown, those who regularly listened to music reported decreased feelings of depression, fear, and worry (Hennessy, 2021). In the streets of Dnipro, Ukraine, local musicians are commonly found performing in the streets for passers-by to penetrate the horrors of the war with soulfulness and defiance. By serving as a literal and figural “instrument,” the universality of music’s affective potency is able to be showcased in its ability to help people manage an unprecedented life stressor.

The utilization of music is imperative and advantageous in one’s mental wellbeing. Music is more than entertainment; it binds humanity together in a way that language sometimes fails to proffer. It is a social communication system that, irrespective of listening idiosyncrasies, has united humanity for tens of thousands of years. By continuing to implement it into daily aspects of life, music can help drive us towards a more cooperative society and a far more connected world.


References

Malhas, A. (2018, July 30). Beat it! Learning to walk to music reduces falls for Parkinson’s patients. Parkinson’s News Today. https://parkinsonsnewstoday.com/news/beat-learning-walk-music-reduces-falls-parkinsons-patients/  

Erra, C., Mileti, I., Germanotta, M., Petracca, M., Imbimbo, I., De Biase, A., Rossi, S., Ricciardi, D., Pacilli, A., Di Sipio, E., Palermo, E., Bentivoglio, A. R., & Padua, L. (2019). Immediate effects of rhythmic auditory stimulation on gait kinematics in parkinson’s disease on/off medication. Clinical Neurophysiology, 130(10), 1789–1797. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clinph.2019.07.013  

Hennessy, S., Sachs, M., Kaplan, J., & Habibi, A. (2021). Music and mood regulation during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. PLOS ONE, 16(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0258027 

Landau, E. (2018, January 23). This is your brain on music. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2013/04/15/health/brain-music-research/  

Manning-Schaffel, V. (2017, July 21). Why some songs make us cry. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/why-do-certain-songs-make-us-cry-ncna784801  

Lupis, J. C. (2017, November 13). We listen to music for more than 4 1/2 hours a day, Nielsen says. Marketing Charts. https://www.marketingcharts.com/industries/media-and-entertainment-81082 

Pelicioni, P. H., Menant, J. C., Latt, M. D., & Lord, S. R. (2019). Falls in parkinson’s disease subtypes: Risk factors, locations and circumstances. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(12), 2216. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16122216 

Sachs, M. E., Habibi, A., Damasio, A., & Kaplan, J. T. (2020). Dynamic intersubject neural synchronization reflects affective responses to sad music. NeuroImage, 218, 116512. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.116512 

McCollum, S. (2019, September 5). Your brain on music: The sound system between your ears. The Kennedy Center. https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/media-and-interactives/media/music/your-brain-on-music/your-brain-on-music/your-brain-on-music-the-sound-system-between-your-ears/ 

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (2021, April 27). Musical instruments. The Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program. https://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/art-music/musical-instruments  

Perrot, S. (2020, November 18). Reperforming, reenacting or rearranging ancient Greek scores? The example of the first delphic hymn to Apollo. https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-03013279/document   

Wang, L., Peng, J. L., Ou-Yang, J. B., Gan, L., Zeng, S., Wang, H. Y., Zuo, G. C., & Qiu, L. (2022). Effects of rhythmic auditory stimulation on gait and motor function in Parkinson’s disease: A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical randomized controlled studies. Frontiers in Neurology, 13, 818559. https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2022.818559 

Westmore, L. (2020, February 21). Music as medicine – The musical recommended daily allowance. The British Academy of Sound Therapy. https://www.britishacademyofsoundtherapy.com/musical-daily-allowance/?utm_source=THE%2BBAST%2BNEWS&utm_campaign=012e2b3618-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_01_29_09_30&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_41f7445393-012e2b3618-596333309 

Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital (Ed.). (n.d.). Arts for healing. Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. https://www.ynhh.org/childrens-hospital/services/support-services/child-life/arts-for-healing