Music is powerful. It can bring people to tears as they watch an old movie, drive them into the arms of a loved one, or immerse them in a memory from long ago. As schools struggle with budget cuts and reduced opportunities for students to participate in music classes, researchers are questioning the relationship between music and the human body and mind. Why does music have such an overwhelming effect on people? How does music affect the brain of a listener? Could music influence people in ways they don’t even realize?
Music affects people’s emotions.
Most of the time, it is easy to identify if a song is a happy or a sad one. Surprisingly, however, this is not a subjective decision. Human brains are wired to respond differently to uplifting or depressing music.
In a recent study, after listening to a short music clip, people were much more likely to interpret the neutral facial responses of other people as either happy or sad—based on what type of song they were listening to. Interestingly, the brain can distinguish between emotions that need to be felt and emotions that should only be perceived. This is how people can listen to a sad song and be drawn in by its beauty, while seeming indifferent to the words.
Background noise improves creativity.
For some jobs, cranking up the volume makes sense. Loud, invigorating music helps people do yard work, household chores, and other monotonous tasks faster. For more creative, thoughtful work, though, louder isn’t better. Many people instinctively turn off the radio when they’re sitting down to read or write. However, it turns out that silence isn’t the best option.
Researchers have discovered that ambient noise is an effective tool for creativity and problem solving. With a moderate level of noise, people experience a processing difficulty, forcing the brain to work creatively. Want to get more done? Work with the radio on at a low volume.
Music distracts drivers.
Teens who took a driving test while listening to their favorite music drove more aggressively and made more mistakes than teens who drove while listening to unfamiliar music. Interestingly, those who listened to no music at all were more likely than the other two groups to make mistakes, thus suggesting that it is better to randomly select a station than to simply turn off the radio while driving.
Exercise is more effective with music.
Researchers have discovered that individuals who exercise while listening to music perform faster, endure longer, and require less oxygen than participants who did not have music. A study of cyclists found that those listening to music pedaled faster and required 7% less oxygen than those pedaling in silence. How does music affect athletic performance? Scientists believe that by focusing on music, people can “drown out” the body’s cries of fatigue, thus giving them an extra boost that helps them perform at peak capacity.
Music improves fine motor skills.
There is significant evidence to suggest that music improves analysis and nonverbal reasoning, as well as increases vocabulary and reading skills. Students who take music lessons for three or more years also exhibit more highly developed fine motor skills. Playing the piano, mastering the flute, tapping out rhythms on the drums—these all improve dexterity, skill, and speed. Even when tested as adults, music students had significantly better auditory discrimination skills, thereby proving that childhood piano lessons can help people later in life.
Music helps improve focus.
A study of stroke patients revealed a startling fact: classical music helped increase visual attention. When tested with other styles of music, stroke victims had decreased visual attention spans. Patients tested with no music scored significantly lower than either group, thus proving that music in general has a positive effect, while classical music generates the most dramatic improvements.
Music preference may be an indicator of personality.
A small study performed by Heriot-Watt University indicates that the style of music one listens to may be an accurate indicator of one’s personality. Participants rated over 100 styles of music, based on their preference, and then took a test relating to personality. The test focused on five key areas: openness to experience, agreeableness, emotional stability, extraversion, and conscientiousness. The results led to a startling conclusion: it may be possible to analyze someone’s personality based solely upon the style of music they enjoy.
Music studies have resulted in fascinating information about how the brain responds with music, and how music can affect the listener. As further research is done into the long-term effects of music on the brain, one thing is clear: music has been a part of the human experience since the beginning of time, and it promises to continue to play a significant role in the future.