Music and the human species go back at least 40,000 years. For a dance to last that long, music clearly has had powerful effects on the human brain. And though research has only recently begun, scientists are finding music not only has the ability to move us, but to heal us as well.
In the early 1990s, the “Mozart effect” was the first scientific treatise on music to reach popular consciousness and sent millions of music fans, parents and even a few politicians on a quest to get themselves or their kids “smarter” through classical music.
More recent research has challenged some points of the “Mozart effect,” but never the idea that music is good for us. Good for our brains. Good for our well-being. It makes us happier and healthier. In fact, research only continues to reinforce the idea.
Rhythm is woven into the human body,” says Liane Brouillette, director of the University of California at Irvine’s Center for Learning through the Arts & Technology. “Our hearts beat. We breathe in and out. Our eyes blink. As we walk, we shift our weight from one foot to the other. When we are healthy, these rhythms combine smoothly into a kind of intimate symphony. In contrast, when our heartbeat is irregular or our breathing is labored, we don’t feel as good – or as happy.
According to Brouillette, there are two lines of music research: One that explores how music could affect our capacity to learn and the other that explores how it affects our social and emotional well-being.
Brouillette cites a 2004 study in which neuroscientists from seven universities found that kids who played music had a higher state of motivation, better ability to focus, better ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory, skills in geometric representation and better language skills. A meta-analysis of existing studies in 2013 also found music education improved overall IQ, might aid in the ability to learn foreign languages and even help discern speech in noisy environments.
Another meta-analysis found that music’s ability to calm a person was strong and could even extend to pre-surgery jitters. One study in the analysis found that patients who listened to music before surgery were more at ease and had lower levels of cortisol in their bloodstream than people who used anti-anxiety drugs.
Research has also shown 10 different areas of the brain are stimulated when hearing music, regardless of style, a commonality that can make music a uniting factor, and a powerful social tool, whether it’s in a remote village in Africa or at Coachella.
And if it can perhaps change the way some brains work, it can potentially help those with neurological disorders. Melodic intonation therapy essentially manipulates healthy parts of the brain to take over functions of damaged parts, perhaps helping a stroke patient to regain speech. Or music could help an Alzheimer’s patient better retain memories.
“Music is a human creation, often inspired by pleasing sounds in our environment,” Brouillette says. “Music enables us to reproduce aural stimuli that have made us feel good in the past.” So far in our pasts, in fact, that research has even shown we can share the feeling of our mothers listening to music when we are in the womb.
But Brouillette says in getting all the benefits of music early in life, research will not be enough.
Public school [music programs] are controlled by school boards and state legislatures, which are more influenced by public pressure than careful research studies,” she says. “Parents collaborating to put pressure on their school board to save the music program in their public schools are the key to success.