We all know how a particular song can bring back a special memory, make us feel happy, calm or pump us up. People are born with the ability to tell the difference between music and noise. Our brains actually have different pathways for processing different parts of music including pitch, melody, rhythm, and tempo. Fast music can increase your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, while slower music tends to have the opposite effect.
While the effects of music on people are not fully understood, studies have shown that when we hear music we like, the brain releases a chemical called dopamine that has positive effects on mood. Music can make us feel strong emotions, such as joy, sadness, or fear- it even has the power to move us. According to some researchers, music may even have the power to impact our health and well-being by improving mood, reducing stress and anxiety, enhancing exercise performance and memory, decreasing pain and improving cognitive abilities.
In late 2019, a new music therapy study used a procedure called hyperscanning, which recods the activity of two brains simultaneously. Hyperscanning can show the tiny, otherwise imperceptible, changes that take place during therapy. Better understanding which areas of the brain respond to certain therapy methods is important in selecting the appropriate therapy approach for each patient.
The brain is made up of billions of brain cells called neurons, and the neurons (just like the rest of the body) use electricity to communicate with each other. The neurons produce an enormous amount of electrical activity when they send signals to each other, and this can be detected using medical equipment like an electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electricity levels over areas of the scalp.
In this study, classical music was played while a patient discussed the serious illness impacting her family. Both patient and therapist wore EEG caps containing sensors, and the session was recorded in sync with the EEG using video cameras. This helped therapists and patients to see the actual moment when the brain shifted from displaying deep negative feelings to positive ones. This allowed the therapist to see when the actual moment of shift in the session (confirmed later by the patient as a moment they felt a shift in the session), as opposed to the therapist relying on facial expressions, verbal communication, and body language.
How does music impact the brain?
The music therapy session is exciting news in addition to information already known about how brain waves work and respond to music. When you graph the electrical activity of your brain using EEG, you generate what is called a brainwave pattern, which is called a “wave” pattern because of its cyclic, wave-like nature.
And the brainwave patterns are generally categorized like this:
Most of us live the majority of our lives in a state of primarily beta brain waves – aroused, alert, concentrated, but also somewhat stressed.
When we lower the brain wave frequency to alpha, we can put ourselves in an ideal condition to learn new information, perform more elaborate tasks, learn languages, analyze complex situations and even be in what sports psychologists call “The Zone”, which is a state of improved focus and performance in athletic competitions or exercise. Part of this is because even slightly decreased electrical activity in the brain can lead to significant increases in feel-good brain chemicals like endorphins, noroepinephrine and dopamine.
For example, when you meditate, which has tremendous benefits including impacting pain relief and weight loss, you are focusing on something, whether it’s a candle flame or your breath going in or out, or a mantra or a prayer. When you focus like that, the electrical patterns in your brain slow down and relax, and the amplitude of your brain-waves generally stabilizes in the alpha wave range. But, if meditation isn’t your cup of tea, the latest research shows that music is another way to get the same effect.
The concept is called “brainwave entertainment,” a method that causes your brainwave frequencies to fall into step with a specific frequency. In effect, you can change your current EEG frequency by introducing another, more dominant external stimulus (such as music, or sound). The brain will then adjust to whatever frequency the brain is exposed to (you can read more about the concept of brainwave entertainment here).
Studies like these, using music therapy along with hyperscanning, are the next step in further understanding how the brain responds to stimuli. The good news, it proves we can change our own brainwaves and ultimately how we respond to life’s challenges.