The science of music and mind and what I think of Neil Diamond

I must admit, I am fascinated with the effect of music on our bodies, our minds and our emotions. I have always enjoyed music in my own simple way, but I really started to take notice when I had children. I was amazed at the power of music over my first born in particular; it could literally switch her emotions within the first few chords of a tune. Even before she had the words to express it, music could reduce her to tears or bring a smile of delight to her face. Why is that?

It depends on how your brain is wired

A recently published article suggests that the brains of certain people are wired differently when it comes to musical interpretation and appreciation. The clue to all this comes down to goose bumps; if you get them when you listen to a certain type of music then you may have a brain that has a more complex communication highway between your auditory cortex and the emotionally processing area.

Regardless of how we perceive music, it seems there is something in it for everyone.

Music and creativity

An online blogging and business group I am part of ran a small survey recently, to determine what kind of music we listened to while working. I was surprised by the responses and the types of music that seemed to help people to concentrate while they work. I have since done a little research and it would appear that music really can enhance our productivity.

I feel a little boring now because I like complete silence while I write, but it appears that music can alter our creativity. A recent study reported that listening to happy music increases divergent thinking.

Apparently the sound level of the music can impact the amount of creativity we achieve. A study on the effects of ambient noise levels on creativity found that moderate levels of 70dB lead to greater scoring on creative tasks than low (50dB) or high (85dB) levels. To put this into perspective, the hum of the refrigerator is about 50db, while a vacuum cleaner or dishwasher produces more moderate sound levels (70db).

Can music heal?

Music can certainly alter our emotions but can it go so far as to heal us too? The healing power of music is not an invention of modern day; in fact it was a common therapy used by ancient Egyptians (using a chanting song) and Aboriginals (the forerunner to the didgeridoo). Pythagoras even had a music healing school in ancient Greece.

Research has shown that listening to music can reduce the levels of stress hormones in the body and boost the body’s immune system, mental health and recovery phase after stress or illness.

Music has been shown to have a positive effect on a number of people suffering from dementia,  chronic pain and depression, such as reported in this study carried out in Belfast last year and including more than 250 children.

Music therapy has also been reported as having a positive effect in the recovery of movement and speech in certain brain disorders and injuries such as Parkinson’s disease and stroke and brain trauma patients. There are also small study reports suggesting that music therapy can help Alzheimer’s patients with memory recovery and strengthening certain neurological connections within the brain.

Why do we love to listen to sad music?

Music can evoke a variety of emotions within us all; it can calm us, scare us or exhilarate us. It can literally send shivers down our spine.

Music can also make us sad, but despite this, many of us seek out this emotion when choosing what to listen to, why is that?

There are a few different possibilities for this; it may be that we can identify with the emotions within the music and feel that someone understands how we feel too; if we can identify with the theme of the song we may feel an empathy with the singer. Or perhaps we feel augmented in our status by comparison, in a ‘at least my day is not as bad as his’ kind of way; something called downward social comparison.

It may be that we enjoy the cocktail of neurochemicals that are released when we listen to sad music, and despite the nature of the tune, we actually feel a positive effect from the results it elicits within us. Studies have shown that dopamine is released when we listen to music, this neurotransmitter is associated with a body high, a positive reward system.

Prolactin is also reported to be produced in response to sad music. Usually it is released into the body in response to sadness, emotional responses among loved ones or stress. Prolactin increases social bonding and feelings of comfort. It may be that, in the absence of the actual pain of sadness or mourning, listening to sad music gives us that lovely feeling, the ‘cozy blanket ‘effect of the hormone.

Whatever emotion music may bring forth within us, what is really interesting is that it is universal; it can traverse the borders of race, nationality and culture.

Does our musical preference predict our personality?

Music is a part of most people’s lives, in one form or another. In this house there is soon to be a bass guitar added to the mix of drums and piano, if a small boy’s birthday wish is to be fulfilled. My husband and kids conspire and analyse over bands such as Led Zeplin. I will admit, while I too can be swayed and overcome by certain tunes, my input is minimal in such conversations; and if I do try to contribute I am usually met with a conspiratorial snigger, while my husband reminds the kids how I once attended a Neil Diamond concert (and LOVED it!).  While the rest of the family dissect each piece of music for the instrument piece they would like to replicate, I get a pat on the shoulder and a suggestion that I could play the triangle in a proposed family band.

What do these things saw about each of our personalities? A lot, apparently.

A group of Cambridge University Psychologists have developed a test to determine personality based on musical preference. Based on their results they have split people into two categories, empathisers and systemisers. Empathisers tend to be strongly empathic people, no surprise there, and prefer slower, more romantic, relaxed or sad type music. I’m ticking all the boxes in this group.

Systemisers on the other hand prefer to focus more on how music is put together. They examine the individual elements, each instrument and how everything links together.  They apparently go for more intense, complex and thrilling music.

I’m still in the empathiser camp after reading both definitions and I think it might explain why I am seen as the outsider, in the musical sense, at home. One piece of information that I wasn’t so happy about though was the fact that systemisers also tend to lean towards more mathematical and scientific careers. I’m not sure what that says about me and my job description!

I may not have the musical skills or fine-tuned ears of my family members, but when it comes to music… I still feel it man!

So I’ll leave you with this act of defiance and suggest you let me know in the comments below, what part does music play in your life (and what do you think of Neil Diamond)?

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Science blogger and writer; Owner of Dr. How's Science Wows; Mother of three junior scientists who have taught me that to be a great scientist you need to look at life through the eyes of a child!

7 thoughts on “The science of music and mind and what I think of Neil Diamond

  • August 8, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    Amazing information. Music has been a integral part of my life. After whole tiring day music can make you feel relax. It also heals your soul.

  • December 30, 2017 at 12:58 am

    Music has always been a part of my life, and yes, I get both goosebumps and shivers down my spine. A late 60s child, I had a classical and folk influence from my parents, while the neighbors were into the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Queen. Enter Disco from the 70s, followed by synth (Jean Michel Jarre), and a true joy of high school 80s. I would categorize myself as a systemizer, but I also enjoy Neil Diamond and John Denver (crazy emotional response when my father passed away). I feel sorry for the youth today that did not get to experience the variety in first person…

    • January 9, 2018 at 1:29 pm

      Thanks Jerry; It is funny how we can track our lives by music and particular songs sometimes. I think many of the music we listened to is having a revival today, only this time in youtube videos and on-line series 🙂 My kids are amazed when I know the lyrics to something they think belongs to their generation, not realising that I grew up listening to the original!

  • September 27, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    Fascinating info Naomi, I really don’t listen to music enough. I like to have silence when writing and then listen to podcasts at times. I do like invigorating music at times though, great for getting the enthusiasm ramped up.

    • October 4, 2017 at 1:12 pm

      I agree, the invigorating music can be great to get my energy levels up, but when I need to focus and concentrate I like silence 🙂

  • September 26, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    This is so fascinating Naomi. I love music and for years I hadn’t been listening much anymore and have recently rediscovered, it is amazing for mood and relaxation as you explain why above.

    • September 26, 2017 at 8:38 pm

      Thanks Laura, I think music is important to everyone, whether we are very skilled and musical or just love to tune into something light and switch off for a while.

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