“Whenever humans come together for any reason, music is there….weddings, funerals, graduation from college, men marching off to war, stadium sporting events, a night on the town, prayer, a romantic dinner, mothers rocking their infants to sleep and college students studying with music as a background….music is part of the fabric of everyday life. Only relatively recently in our own culture, five hundred years or so ago, did a distinction arise that cut society in two, forming separate classes of music performers and music listeners. Throughout most of the world and for most of human history, music making was as natural an activity as breathing and walking, and everyone participated. Concert halls, dedicated to the performance of music, arose only in the last several centuries. Understanding why we like music and what draws us to it is therefore a window on the essence of human nature….” (Levitin)
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For as long as man has been man, music has been inexorably tied to our humanity. It has the power to affect us deeply, and listening can evoke an emotional response in a way that few other experiences can. Though the curative properties of music of music have been known for hundreds or years (Conrad), it is only now with advancements in neuropsychology and imaging technology that we are beginning to understand the mechanisms at work. Music has been to aid in the treatment of both mental and physiological ailments with tremendous success. As research continues to progress, it is becoming increasingly clear just how profoundly music affects us.
It is believed that our love of music is rooted in our sense of survival. As a species, mankind loves patterns. When recognizing a pattern, the brain produces a pleasurable sensation as a form of reward (this is accomplished through neurotransmitter cascade, which will be discussed in a bit more detail later on in the paper. Evolutionary biologists believe that the reason for this phenomenon is that patterns aid us in our quest for survival. By understanding and predicting that a pattern is occurring, on is able to adjust his behavior and be better able to respond. Music, in nearly every form is based upon relationships of sounds. Like language, it has a syntax (Zatorre).
There is a long tradition of the appreciation of music’s influence on human emotions throughout history. Pythagoras claimed to heal the souls of others through enharmonic tunes. Asklepiades, a prominent Greek physician, claim to have found success in using music to treat mental illness. Boethius, a Roman senator, claimed that music was an integral component of man’s reality. Tinctorus, a French Renaissance philosopher, produced a treaties claiming that music had 20 profound effects on man, including its ability to cure diseases and slow the aging process (Conrad).
There are certain attributes of music that appear to be universal. Nearly every culture has music in one form or another. Despite the fact the music syntax and tonality can vary widely, There is a certain intensionality associated with music that appears to be universally understood. This aspect of music appears to extend beyond cultural barriers. This notion is exemplified perfectly in a study conducted by Harvard university. Participants from 60 different countries were played music from 86 social groups from around the globe. Participants were asked to identify whether the song fell into one of six categories, lullaby, dance, healing, an expression of love, mourning, or story-based. With the exception of love songs, participants were able to categorize the music that they were listening to with high levels of accuracy, despite being unfamiliar with both the cultures and the songs that they were exposed to. As Samuel Mehr, one of the researchers states, “Despite the staggering diversity of music influenced by countless cultures and readily available to the modern listener, our shared human nature may underlie basic musical structures that transcend cultural differences” (Hale).
In the modern era, a great deal of research has been devoted to exploring musics influence over the mind, particularly its healing and curative powers. Several studies have confirmed musics ability to facilitate the healing process. One particularly well known experiment was undertaken to determine the effect of music on elders undergoing elective hip and knee surgery who experience acute confusion and delirium post-operatively. Postoperative confusion and delirium in elders often cause complications that negatively effect recovery. Music listening was introduced as an intervention to an experimental group. Nurses documented episodes of acute confusion and delirium experienced by elders post-surgically. Scores from a readiness-to-ambulate profile to determine if patients were cognitively ready for postoperative therapy were evaluated. There was a significant decrease in the number of episodes of postoperative confusion among those in the experimental group compared with those in the non-listening control group. In addition, the experimental group had significantly higher scores on the readiness-to-ambulate profile than the control group. These findings indicate that music listening is an effective nursing intervention that can be used to decrease acute postoperative confusion and delirium in elders undergoing elective hip and knee surgery (McCaffrey).
Music also appears to have a sedative effect in a pre-surgical setting. Propofol is a medication given to patients undergoing surgery that induces drowsiness. In its administration, there are certain markers that medical staff will look for in its efficacy, including the time it takes to induce sedation, and the target concentration need to achieve sedation. For patients listening to music while being administered Propofol, both marks appear to be substantially decreased (Zhang).
Chang, a researcher based out of Taiwan, performed an experiment to determine the effect that music had on the stress levels of pregnant patients. The participants were placed into two groups, an experimental and a control. The experimental group was given regular exposure to peaceful music in addition to the prenatal care offered to the control group. Both groups were asked to complete the Perceived Stress Scaleand the State Scale of the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. The experimental group scored significantly lower in both inventories, indicating that exposure to music can reduce both stress and anxiety in prenatal patients (Chang).
Researchers have also examined the impact on the stress levels of patients. Using cerebral blood flow (which increases as a response to the perception of stress – more blood flow to the brain allows for quicker reflexes and more robust perception), Trappe explored the effects of various classical music pieces. Va Pensiero, a relatively calm classical piece, was found to lower cerebral blood flow. In contrast, the relatively more up tempo Libiam Nei Lieti Calici appeared to not have nearly as much of an impact. Trappe also looked at the effect of classical music on patients stress levels in a pre-operative setting. Like Chang, Trappe used the State Trait Anxiety Inventory to explore the relative stress levels of participants. Midazolam, a drug used preoperatively to induce sleepiness and decrease anxiety, was given to one group. The other group was exposed to 30 minutes of classical music before their procedure. The group exposed to music scored significantly lower on their anxiety markers than the medication group (Trappe).
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The appear to be several regions of the brain impacted by the act of listening to music. The specific regions that are activated seem to be based on the tension and consonance inherent in the piece being played (Blood). The details of how music creates a feeling of tension are beyond the scope of this paper. In general, tension is a musical interval (the difference between two successive pitches) that defies the listeners expectations. Consonance is the absence of this tension. Rather than being biologically based, ones understanding of harmony is culturally specific, and varies greatly throughout the world. Consonance in successive tones has been shown to produce activation of the paralimbic system (Blood). The paralimbic system is one of the regions of the brain involved in emotional processing and memory. Volume is another component of music that has been shown to produce physiological responses. Due to connections between the ear and the audio cortex of the brain, volume cause production and release of hormones which in turn produce various effects throughout the body. Musical crescendos, which are the loudest point in a classical piece of music at the end of a gradual increase in volume, produces cardiovascular changes included increasing pulse and blood pressure (Kreutz).
Through imaging technology, it has been demonstrated that music has an effect on the activation of various regions of the brain involved in emotional processing. Chief among these are the amygdala, the nucleus accumbens and the hippocampus. The amygdala is the central processing center of the brain. It interprets and produce a host of different emotions, including fear, anger and happiness. It is also integral to the release of certain neurotransmitters (like hormones, chemicals that have various effects throughout the body) including serotonin and dopamine, which are integral in mood regulation. It, along with the nucleus accumbens, is the bridge between the auditory system and the rest of the brain. The Nucleus accumbens is the primary reward center of the brain. When it is activated (by food, sex or any number of other activities), it releases a cascade of various neurotransmitters, leading to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Activity in this region coincides with musical frissons, or pleasurable shivers relating to sound (Salimpoor).
The final region, the hippocampus, is chiefly involved in stress regulation (in addition to memory formation and social bonding). There are many activities and sensory stimuli that activate the amygdala and nucleus accumbens, that fall to activate the hippocampus. In light of this, it is believed that is not the experience of reward associated with listening to music that activates this region, but a separate emotional experience. Preliminary research indicates that it is likely the evocation of feelings of joy and sadness, related again to consonance and dissonance, that causes this activation (Koelsch). Through the hippocampus’ connection to the pituitary and adrenal glands (both of which are involved in the stress response) it is believed that this activation is chiefly responsible for reducing stress through decreasing the production of cortisol, a stress hormone. The association between music and the hippocampus may be at least partially responsible for music’s role in reducing anxiety, discussed in the studies above.
As research continues to advance, there is no doubt that new ways in which music affects us will emerge. It has the capacity to have a profound effect on not only mood, but our physiology as well. The mechanisms are varied and complex, to the point where it feels as if we’ve only scratched the surface.
- Blood, Anne J., and Robert J. Zatorre. “Intensely Pleasurable Responses to Music Correlate with Activity in Brain Regions Implicated in Reward and Emotion.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 25 Sept. 2001, www.pnas.org/content/98/20/11818.short.
- Chang, Mei‐Yueh, et al. “Effects of Music Therapy on Psychological Health of Women during Pregnancy – Chang – 2008 – Journal of Clinical Nursing – Wiley Online Library.” Journal of Clinical Nursing, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), 19 Feb. 2008,
- Conrad, Claudius. Music for Healing: from Magic to Medicine. The Lancet, 11 Dec. 2010, www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)62251-9/fulltext?
- Hale, Tom. “Despite Cultural Differences, Humans Understand Each Other’s Music.” IFLScience, IFLScience, 19 June 2019, www.iflscience.com/brain/despite-cultural-differences-
- Koelsch, Stefan, et al. “Investigating Emotion with Music: An FMRI Study – Koelsch – 2006 – Human Brain Mapping – Wiley Online Library.” Human Brain Mapping, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2 Aug. 2005, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/hbm.20180.
- Kreutz G., Murcia C. Q., Bongard S. “Psychoneuroendocrine Research on Music and Health” Music, Health and Wellbeing, 2011
- Levitin, D. J. “This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.” New York, NY, US: Dutton/Penguin Books. 2006
- McCaffrey, Ruth, and Rozzano Locsin. “The Effect of Music Listening on Acute Confusion and Delirium in Elders Undergoing Elective Hip and Knee Surgery”. Journal of Clinical Nursing – Wiley Online Library. Journal of Clinical Nursing, Nov. 2004,
- Salimpoor, Valorie N, et al. “Interactions between the Nucleus Accumbens and Auditory Cortices Predict Music Reward Value.” Science (New York, N.Y.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, 12 Apr. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23580531.
- Trappe, Hans-Joachim. “The Effects of Music on the Cardiovascular System and Cardiovascular Health.” Heart, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd, 1 Dec. 2010,
- Zatorre, Robert J. “Why Do We Love Music?” Cerebrum : the Dana Forum on Brain Science, The Dana Foundation, 1 Nov. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6353111/.
- Zhang, X. W., et al. “Effects of Music on Target‐Controlled Infusion of Propofol Requirements during Combined Spinal‐Epidural Anaesthesia* – Zhang – 2005 – Anaesthesia – Wiley Online Library.” Anaesthesia, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), 16 Aug. 2005,
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