Music activates our entire brain. It is one of the most powerful means of evoking emotions. Why does a song make us happy, active, or calm? Neuropsychologist Rebecca Schaefer provides an insight into our musical brains.
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Let a premature baby listen to harp music and it has a positive effect on growth. Stressed out? Put on music by Verdi or the arias in Puccini’s opera Turandot. The 10-second repetitive cycle resembles a heartbeat and calms down. As a wine merchant, do you want customers to buy expensive wine? Play classical music in your store. Numerous studies ‘prove’ the positive influence of music on the brain and behavior. Some have a high ‘sandwich monkey content’. That cows produce more milk when they hear Beethoven, for example. Or that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. “You have to take some studies with a grain of salt because they are not set up properly,” says Rebecca Schaefer, a neuropsychologist at Leiden University.
Schaefer is watching for the firm, general conclusions based on small studies. Scientists do not yet know exactly how the brain responds to music. But it is clear that all kinds of things happen in the brain. “Music is one of the most powerful means of evoking emotions. You can put yourself in a certain mood with it. Even when you play a song in your head, the brain activates in a similar way to actually hearing a song. ” The question of what music does to the brain cannot be summed up in one answer. Music can activate the whole brain. Each element, such as rhythm, sound, melody, and harmony, can affect a specific part of the brain. “The response to music goes in all directions from the hearing area. It ensures that everything happens in the brain at the same time. It stimulates areas of the brain that are involved in, among other things, emotion, motor skills, memory, and language. ” It activates, relaxes, makes you happy or sad.
How the brain then interprets music depends on several factors. It can evoke associations with an event. If that is a positive memory, dopamine will be released and a person will be happy hearing a specific song. When people are sad, they tend to listen to melancholic music instead of cheerful music. “Music is a safe way to explore negative feelings.” Some music genres are strongly associated with ‘negative’. Fado and opera songs are often sad, death metal expresses anger. “That is partly in certain aspects of music, such as the type of chords. Songs in a minor key are considered sad. Consonant notes sound good together, but dissonant notes produce a rough sound and people think that sounds negative”
Many athletes use music with a hard, steady beat to boost themselves up before a game or workout. Battle songs like Eye of the Tiger help to present yourself as invincible and intimidate your opponent. Schaefer mainly conducts research into the application of music in healthcare. “We can do a lot more with music there than we do now. It is important that we make specific what we want to tackle. For people with dementia, music hardly helps with improving memory, but it can help with anxiety, fear, or panic. We can try to get patients to enter surgery more relaxed with calming music that has an effect on muscle tone and heart rate.”
Certain elements of the music can be helpful for a specific group of patients and problems. While one music therapy can help people with autism communicate, another application of music can help someone with Parkinson’s walk. To conclude that music can be used as a medicine, Schaefer is still going too far. “We can only use interventions properly if we have an idea of the underlying mechanisms in the brain. What happens in the body when you hear music? I research, among other things, the influence of musical rhythm in movement rehabilitation. A beat or certain rhythm may be able to help people with more stable movement or better timing. But perhaps motivation and fun are also important in this.”
If something is unique to humans, it is that when we hear the music we automatically tend to move or clap along. Well-known are the films of the parrot moving along to the music of the Backstreet Boys or the sea lion dancing to the song Boogie Wonderland. “Those animals can do that because it has been taught or is encouraged by people. A monkey cannot do that. Some animals can hear tones very well, but that function seems to be different from how we listen to music. Moving to music, as we do, seems to be unique to humans.”