Humans have always had a special relationship with music. Almost every person consumes it one way or another, and it seems that we spend most of our time surrounded by music. It is so much ingrained in everyday life it is almost hard to imagine an activity that is not accompanied by it. Music is present while we shop, study, work, travel, socialize, relax or exercise.
Research tells us that people use music to manage their emotions, connect with others, create a certain image, and as a means of self-expression. Music is even sometimes used to manipulate moods and behaviour (e.g. shopping preferences). It can also have a profound influence on our emotional, cognitive and physical health.
But why is music so important to us, and do the the benefits of music extend beyond pure enjoyment? A recent theory suggests that music might have an important role in evolution of consciousness and culture. Leonid Perlovsky at Harvard University suggests that at some point in evolution proto-humans experienced a split in vocalizations, creating one type that was more semantic, and another that had a lot more emotional connections. The former evolved into language, while the latter evolved into music. Hence, music had a role in developing a more sophisticated emotionality and it represents a powerful communication system, possibly as important as language, during our evolution.
Music for the Mind
Given its important role in the development of mind and emotionality, it is not surprising that music listening activates a number of different brain regions that regulate emotional and semantic processing, memory, attention and motor functions. That is why music can have such a major impact on our cognitive, emotional and physical wellbeing. For example, research showed that listening to music can help some patients recover some of their cognitive abilities after suffering a stroke . In the study, patients who listened to music of their choice daily for two months managed to improve their verbal memory and focused attention considerably more then patients who did not listen to music.
Another study focused on the effects of music on older adults found that even listening to music passively, in the form of background music, can help improve cognitive performance in memory and processing speed tasks.
Music can also be of great benefit to our emotional state, helping to improve emotional functioning and assisting with mood regulation. Listening to music can also have a major impact on stress management, appearing to inhibit our biological stress response and even helping the nervous system to recover faster when placed under stress.
Music listening has been proven to help reduce symptoms of depression, regardless of what type of music is being listened to, as long as the listener has control over the choice of music . Additionally music therapy, as opposed to music listening, can also be an effective treatment for conditions such as depression and agitation in the elderly.
Music for the Body
The effects of music on humans are so profound that they can even contribute to our physical wellbeing. One of the most beneficial effects that music therapy has been shown to have in this area is pain reduction. Studies show that music therapy helps reduce pain in terminally ill patients . The perception of pain can be reduced using music (vocal, instrumental or listening techniques) to alter sensory, emotional and cognitive processes.
University of Maryland medical center researchers have also found a link between listening to music and cardiovascular health. The researchers found that listening to joyful music could effect the dilation of blood vessels' inner lining, with the diameter of blood vessels growing by up to 26 percent when a person listened to happy music. This means that music can literally get the blood pumping.
Listening to music when exercising can also have a major impact on your performance when undertaking exercise. One of the many wonderful neurological effects of listening to music is that music also stimulates the motor area of your brain, which can be of great benefit to self-paced exercises such as running, as many will attest to. A 2010 study also found that cyclists actually worked harder when listening to faster music as compared to music at a slower tempo.
cut through the noise. hear the music.
The hectic pace of modern life and the constant bombardment of information we face in our hyper-connected lives can be detrimental to both our mental and physical health and wellbeing. Unfortunately the effectiveness of music as a sales tool has meant that a large part of our music listening experience on any given day is largely dictated by marketers and advertisers. We face constant bombardment by music throughout the day in the media and in the shops we visit, meaning that much of the music we hear throughout the day is designed to influence our spending behaviour and does little to help us connect with the real cognitive and emotional power that lies within our favourite music.
Making time to listen to music can be one of the most enjoyable and effective ways that you can improve your health and wellbeing. Listening to music satisfies numerous social, emotional, physical and intellectual needs and can help improve our performance, as well as our mental and physical health.
Additionally, advances in mobile technology will continue to see the creation of new Apps and tools, that will allow us to adapt and harness our music listening habits and tastes, in highly personalised ways, to improve our health and wellbeing. However it is important to note that to really unlock the benefits that music can bring, you need to actively listen to it, making time for yourself to give it your full attention rather than simply using it as background noise in the daily maelstrom. The real power of music lies in the many memories and emotions that music triggers, tied to people, places and events in our past.
Do yourself a favour and make the time to stop, breathe and focus on nothing but the music, just like you used to before the "real world" got in the way. It might sound simplistic and/or strange but the next time you go to listen to your favourite music, put the book down or shut down whatever social media you were scrolling through and instead close your eyes and take 10 slow deep breaths, breathing in for a count 4 or 5 seconds and then breathing out for a count of 4 or 5 seconds. Then press play and really try to give the music your complete and undivided attention, noticing all the different sounds from the instruments and vocals, noticing the lyrics and the emotional tone of the song. This simple exercise will not only help you cut through the noise and distractions of daily life, but it will probably help you fall in love with your favourite music all over again and could just be one of the most simple and enjoyable ways you can improve your wellbeing.