The Science of Music

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“Science is the Music of the intellect, and Music is the Science of the heart”. A beautiful saying that makes it hard to deny that music and science are very closely related. First of all because of the mathematical constructs that come together to build up a rhythm or a melody, and there are of course the sound waves that we can nowadays fully understand due to our elaborate understanding of physics. But have you ever wondered why  some songs can affect your mood or even improve your well-being?

I’ve got chills, they’re multiplying…

Goosebumps, the chills, a lump in your throat; they are some everyday examples of what music can do to us. One of the hormones released upon musical stimulation of our reward system is dopamine. It is believed that a surge of dopamine is linked to adrenaline production, explaining the occurrence of goosebumps which are naturally a part of our fight and flight response (1). Biology dictates, that these “frisson” or “aesthetic chills” cannot be experienced by everyone. The extent of this psychophysiological response to a rewarding auditory stimuli such as music is determined by the brain fiber connectivity between the auditory and reward pathways (2). More efficient processing between those brain sections leads to more intense emotions in general and a higher capability to develop goosebumps upon musical activity. An intriguing finding, but the link between music and biology goes deeper than that.

Music is Medicine

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The perception “Music is Medicine” dates back to the oldest healing rituals in human history (3), in which Pythagoras, Hippocrates and Aristotle (6th – 4th century BC) already put down some roots (4). Luckily, we nowadays have some more profound research engaging in the scientific questions that have arisen over the last few centuries. As a result, many connections between music and its benefits for our health have been dictated. One important implication of music, is its potency to alleviate pain perception, which is termed music-induced analgesia. Brain activity upon listening to music activates not only regions like the amygdala, hippocampus, and our reward system, but also regions in the descending pain modulatory pathway (5). A straightforward example where music can, in rare cases, be seen as a safe and non-addictive substitute to pharmacological interventions.

Other interesting observations are for example that people who suffer from sudden twitches, movements, or sounds (Tourette Syndrome) become tic-free upon playing or listening to music (6). Similarly, people with Alzheimer’s disease are still capable to respond to the universal language of music when everything else becomes incomprehensible. In the end, these positive effects of music all seem to have their roots in the brain. To be a little more exact, the modulation of brain waves.

Becoming one with music

Depending on their frequency, brain waves can be divided into delta (1-4 Hz), theta (4-8 Hz), alpha (8-12 Hz), beta (>12 Hz), and gamma (30-40 Hz) (7). Alpha brainwaves reside in the middle of the brain wave spectrum and represent an awake-resting state, where you are fully conscious but relaxed and calm. A state considered perfect for creative thinking (8). Interestingly, it has been found that music with a tempo around 60 beats per minutes can synchronize with the brain, thereby inducing those alpha oscillations. Not only the perception, but also the mere imagination of music elicits alpha activity (7). So next time you have a song stuck in your head, don’t get impatient, but enjoy some moments of relaxation and benefit from the creative burst this earworm can provoke.

One striking example of the benefits of alpha wave induction by music is described for some comatose patients. Long-term music therapy changes the ratio of higher and lower frequency brain waves. A shift towards the brain waves with a higher state of activity possibly promotes the regaining of consciousness (9).

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Another well-studied but dubious effect of the increase in alpha oscillations is the “Mozart effect”. It has been proposed that listening to the K448 sonata of Mozart enhances your neurophysiological activity and thereby memory, cognition, and problem-solving (10). Along the same lines, there have been claims that Mozart’s music can boost your IQ, spatio-temporal intelligence, and mental development. This has, however, never been proven. Funnily enough, it is not called the “Beethoven effect” for a reason; Für Elise did not induce the same effects as the K448 sonata of Mozart.

So is this rather slow and classical music the “healthiest”? Not necessarily. In the end, a positive influence upon musical activity can only be experienced if the music is to your liking. And we all know, music taste differs drastically between individuals. In fact, more upbeat music can induce brain waves with higher frequencies, which would bring you in a more alert or happy state. Something that has been shown to be beneficial for young patients with attention deficit disorder, and in some unique cases even as effective as the use of Ritalin!

There are sad songs too

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Bob Marley once said: “A good thing about music is the fact that when you are hit by it, you do not feel any pain”. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case for everyone. A rather tragic example is musicogenic epilepsy or musicolepsia. A condition where music, independent of its loudness or genre, can induce seizures (6). This rare type of complex reflex epilepsy has a prevalence of 1 in 10 million and manifests not only upon listening, but also upon playing, thinking or dreaming of music. Individual differences are enormous; some people even respond specifically to one instrument or composer (11). The cause is most probably a dysfunction in the brain section involved in emotional responses, leading to an abnormal release of dopamine resulting in seizures (1).

Another peculiar manifestation related to the perception of music is the so-called musical hallucination. It is defined as the abnormal perception of sound in the absence of any external auditory stimuli (12). It can last for hours and most commonly involves music dating back to one’s childhood. Musical hallucinations predominantly surface in people with a psychiatric disorder, a form of hearing-impairment, or a degenerative neurological disease. It is therefore not to be confused with the more typical “musical earworms” we all experience from time to time.

Time after time

Taken all of this together, it is fascinating to speculate how music may have an acquired reward value through evolution, even though it has no proven biological relevance for survival. Whereas the dependence on such well-defined neurochemical response suggests an evolutionary origin for music involving natural selection, it is not unlikely that music simply exploits the pre-existing reward systems and brain functions in place.

In my opinion, there are definitely some beneficial aspects about music when it comes to our well-being that are worthy of a follow-up. Plus I would consider them an additional motivation for everyone to also start playing music! Even though I cannot say that my 22 years of playing music have ever protected me from the annual common cold or stressful moments in my PhD, it definitely contributes to a lot of happiness. And truth be told, in the end there is nothing better than routinely analyzing your data or culturing your cells with your favorite song in the background. It might not always induce the greatest epiphany, but it definitely makes life better!

In the end, you will hopefully agree with the famous British neurologist Oliver Sacks, who states that our auditory systems and nervous systems are tuned for music. Making us a musical species no less than a linguistic one.

Author: Lisa Schiffelers


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