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That Magical Mystery Thing Called Music

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato once said, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”

That’s a well thought-through way of saying that music has an almost magical impact on us. It can lesson our stress, heighten our senses, cause our heart to change its rhythm and generally make our lives better. And I don’t care what style, genre or era of music leaps to mind for you. It all has a pretty similar effect on our brains.

But why?

Why does music help us push through a workout and gear up for a sporting event? How does it cause your toe to tap and your knotted up shoulders to relax? What is that sense of pleasure we feel when we hear a great musical hook or a perfect meld of instruments?  

Well, to a certain extent, that’s still a mystery. But we do know some things. First, there’s something special about all the pieces in the mix.

When you stop to think about it, music is this interesting concoction of sound, mathematical rhythms, melody and harmony. There’s structure, repetition, timbre and dynamics in there, too. It’s a pretty complicated construct. And our brains enjoy the chance of, well, absorbing all those different pieces, much like a kid relishes gobbling Oreo cookies dipped in a glass of milk. In fact, that’s a more apt description than you might imagine.

A relatively recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences helped support the long-held idea that music causes our brain to release something called dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with our reward and pleasure centers. Music prompts the brain to produce opioids as well. That chemical combination causes the sudden rush we feel. It’s the same kind of pleasure sensations we get from food and sex.

Listening to or playing music also increases blood flow to the brain’s limbic system for some reason, which is involved in processing emotions and controlling memory. So that’s why hearing a favorite tune from long ago can instantly bring back memories and emotions from that time. In fact, there have even been documented cases of people who have suffered brain injuries and lost their ability to distinguish musical melodies, but who still connect with the emotions they used to feel when they heard a certain song. Even though they couldn’t recognize the tune, they could still recognize its importance to them.

I recently read an NPR article that spoke of the awe that music can produce in a listener. The article’s author, Rob Stein, discussed the topic with some experts in the field of brain science. And one thing they suggested is that music actually helps us connect and get along better with others when we hear the same music.

“Neurons in the brain even fire with the beat of the music, which helps people feel connected to one another by literally synchronizing their brain waves when they listen to the same song,” Stein noted.

“What we used to say in the ’60s is, ‘Hey, I’m on the same wavelength as you man,'” Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University, added. “But it’s literally true—your brain waves are synchronized listening to music.”

Stein went on to talk about the fact that music also has the effect of slowing our heart rate, deepening our breathing and lowering stress hormones through the body’s release of cortisone. Researchers at Shanghai University conducted a study in 2015 that revealed that relaxing music significantly reduced fatigue while also maintaining muscle endurance.

Phew! Music is some powerful stuff. And here you thought you were just jiving to your favorite band.

Sure, that power can make music kind of bad, too. If a song’s communicating unhealthy habits or unsafe practices, it just makes sense that you’d want to be cautious about injecting it into your brain. But turns out, good music can be good for you.

OK, so here’s another why for you: Why am I lauding all these benefits of a great tune? Well, because music is cool, of course. But there’s another reason as well. We live in a time and place when loneliness and social isolation are pretty big problems for teens and adults alike. From social media connections to TikTok clips to video games, there are lots of things that encourage everyone to stay locked away on their own.

And yep, music can help with that, too.

There have been a number of studies, including this one, that suggest that shared musical interests can strengthen social connections and reduce loneliness. And even way back in the pre-solitary days of COVID, people were praising the idea of getting out with others and lifting your voices with some favorite tunes. You know, just jump into a choir and let those dopamine-fueled joys, uh, sing. Consider it.

I mean, music! It’s good for you.

Bob Hoose

After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.

2 Responses

  1. -There are some speculations that music is the language of heaven, because prior to the fall, everything was sung. The only dialog in Genesis before sin is written in poetic verse format, and most visions of heaven in Scripture feature angels in perpetual song.

    It may or may not be true. But it’s definitely an interesting possibility. And it would certainly explain the spiritual effects of it on us.