Adya Patil, Article Writer
Hanniel Wong, Researcher
Music has long existed in our world. Our early ancestors may have created rhythmic music by clapping their hands. Soon after this, our ancestors whittled instruments out of natural materials, such as bones. Music has served a variety of purposes over millennia, including dancing and communication over vast distances. The major reason music has persisted throughout history is its ability to bring people together. Music keeps workers happy when doing repetitive and otherwise boring work, and helps everyone move together, increasing the effectiveness of their work. Dancing or singing together before a hunt or warfare binds participants into a cohesive group. Music’s effects, whether it’s pop or classical, have deeply ingrained cues in our brain structure and chemistry.
Many have cast their thoughts on music and its specialities, yet few know of the effects of music on the human brain. For a long time, music has been proven to have its emphasis on the right hemisphere of the brain, though both hemispheres are involved in processing music. From humans’ evolutionary history, we have predicted that the enjoyment of music commenced when our ancestors had lesions following cerebral damage that had inadvertently led to impairments of the appreciation of pitch, timbre and rhythm. Studies with brain imaging analysis have shown that the right hemisphere will be preferentially activated upon listening to music, and also triggers an emotional experience, allowing humans to activate areas on this side of the brain even when imagining music. Yet, these emotional experiences root from one’s brain development: for the ordinary listener, there may not be an emotional experience triggered in regard to the content of the musical work. Studies have found that the real stimulus is not the unfolding of musical content, but rather the subjective imagination and perspective of the listener’s mind.
For classical music, studies have shown that the emotional experience triggered has positive impacts on the listener’s brain. According to a 2018 study on the effect of different types of music on preoperative anxiety, when a person is subjected to listening to classical music, their heart rate and breathing rate would be lowered. Moreover, the researchers found that hormone-secreting glands would produce less cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone, when listening to classical music, lessening the listener’s anxiety and lowering blood pressure. Another study conducted by the Finland University of Helsinki showed that listening to classical music leads to an increase in dopamine secretion, and enhances the synaptic function on genes associated with learning and memory. A significant example is the secretion of synuclein-alpha (SNCA), which is often linked to how birds learn their singing abilities, and the evolutionary background of sound perception and memory. Therefore, classical music has been proved to have a positive effect on mental health.
On the contrary, pop music has an excitatory effect on one’s brain and body. According to a study conducted by Penn State, pop music gets the blood pumping and makes you less calm. The catchy rhythmic beats travel from the cochlea (a part of the inner ear responsible for receiving sound in the form of vibrations and converting them into action potential) to the auditory cortex in the brain via auditory nerves. First, pop music draws your attention to the music through percussion. The sounds of a drum also send a quick and fleeting bolt of acoustic energy that signals the brain’s response to change; “the more sudden the change, the more it grabs your attention.” Another attention-grabbing aspect of pop music is the mere presence of a voice, which is absent in instrumental classical music. The auditory neuroscience concept of salience—the phenomenon of things being able to grab your attention—can attest to this. Perhaps due to evolutionary reasons, the voice is known to particularly grab your attention, relative to other sources of sound at the same volume or frequency. Additionally, pop songs use a combination of repetition and novelty so your brain can recognize patterns quickly — which is what the brain is made for — to predict what comes next. Pop song have a pattern of sounds: a melody, usually four or fewer chords, simple chord progressions, and the verse/chorus structure. This structure is common among all pop songs, thus the brain knows what is coming up next in the song. Oftentimes, these songs will have a bridge, which introduces a different tempo and a different set of chords that are new and unique to each song. Now, the listener’s attention is heightened because the pattern has changed. Then, the song concludes with the chorus, which is satisfying because it returns to the pattern, giving listeners a little release of dopamine, and is partly why pop music is so appealing.
Pop music affects our brain chemistry in different regions of its structure. In a study conducted by the University of Central Florida (UCF), neuroscientists studied the brain of world class violinist Ayako Yonetani. The nucleus acumen, a part in the brain that releases dopamine and elicits feelings of pleasure and reward, is affected by pop music. “Music can be a drug — a very addictive drug because it’s also acting on the same part of the brain as illegal drugs,” UCF professor and neuroscientist Kiminobu Sugaya says. “Music increases dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, similar to cocaine.'' The repetitiveness and upbeat nature of pop music specifically can especially trigger the nucleus accumben. Pop music can also increase activity in the hypothalamus, a structure in the brain responsible for maintaining the release of essential hormones through the endocrine system, and chemicals that regulate thirst, appetite, sleep, mood, heart rate, body temperature, metabolism, growth and sex drive, and more.
Most pop music is repetitive and catchy, making it easier to get in your head and bother you,whereas classical music is more complex with different sections and emergence of new ideas. There is no ‘better’ music to increase productivity or creativity. Whether it’s rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, hip-hop, or classical, your gray matter prefers the same music you do. “It depends on your personal background,” Yonetani says. For a while, researchers believed that classical music increases brain activity and makes its listeners smarter, a phenomenon called the Mozart effect. This is not necessarily true, though one may prefer to listen to a certain genre of music that matches what the situation calls for (for example, if someone wants to wind down at the end of the day, they may prefer to listen to classical music over pop because of its calming effect on the hypothalamus). In most cases, however, the emotional and memorable connection one has to a certain genre of music has a closer link to the desired effect of playing the music. In recent studies, researchers found that people with dementia respond better to the music they grew up listening to. Clearly, music means more to us as humans than its effect on our brain chemistry.
Lightner, A. C. (2015, September 4). How does music affect your brain? Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy, Pennsylvania State University.
Montagu, J. (2017). How music and instruments began: A brief overview of the origin and entire development of music, from its earliest stages. Frontiers in Sociology, 2. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsoc.2017.00008
Spector, N. (2018, July 19). What happens to your brain when you listen to a summer hit. Better by Today, NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/pop-culture/what-happens-your-brain-when-you-listen-summer-hit-ncna892921
The effects of classical music on the brain. (2019, October 30). Symphony Central Coast. https://www.symphonycentralcoast.com.au/classical-music-effects-on-brain/
Trimble, M., & Hesdorffer, D. (2017). Music and the brain: the neuroscience of music and musical appreciation. BJPsych international, 14(2), 28–31. https://doi.org/10.1192/s2056474000001720
Your brain on music. (n.d.). Pegasus, Magazine of the University of Central Florida. https://www.ucf.edu/pegasus/your-brain-on-music/