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Thank you for the music…

Author: Katie Hart

Date: 03 Sep 2023


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Thank you for the music…

Did you just read that title normally, or find yourself singing it in full ABBA style?

Whether you are a fan of pop, rock, classical, jazz, house, country, heavy metal, blues, hip hop (the list goes on), it is likely that some forms of music appeal to you more than others. It is also likely that you will be able to recall music from many, many years go – with ease and confidence. Whether it is songs from school which helped you learn the days of the week in French, or tracks from your formative years which come racing back to you when you hear the opening bars. Music, has special significance within our brains.

In fact, the right music is essentially a workout for our brains. It has been shown to reduce anxiety, reduce blood pressure, reduce pain, improve sleep quality, improve mood, improve mental alertness, aid memory and learning, and facilitate the forming of social connections and bonds. Wow!

When I am conducting research using an EEG (electroencephalograph) headset, before I start, I need to establish whether any of my participants are left-handed, multi-lingual or musical. Why? Because each of these has the power to change the way the brain works.

Yes, the influence music has over our brains is that profound. For example

  • it can help with recalling memories from much, much earlier in our lives,
  • singing can enable people who cannot speak, to communicate verbally again,
  • it has been used to effectively for people who are suffering with dementia

You will see from this that memory appears to be closely related to music, so why is that?

In order to work effectively, our long-term memory needs a number of key stages to operate successfully – at its most simplistic, these are (1) encoding the information, (2) storing it and then (3) being able to retrieve or access it at a later date. These steps involve a number of different areas within the brain, mainly focused around the hippocampus and the amygdala. However, studies now appear to suggest that there could be separate areas of the brain which are implicated in the process of remembering music – the Music Memory Area. This could explain how music is still able to be processed and recalled in patients who have dementia and other conditions which affect their long-term memory.

What else influences the powerful relationship between music and memory?

Let us begin by considering sound at an evolutionary level. Our hearing is vitally important to our survival, and the placement of an ear on either side of our head provides information to much of our brain about sounds and their location. Therefore many different parts of our brain are involved in the hearing and processing of sounds.

Now, bringing this back to our lives today, let us be realistic. Not much of our lives today are spent in silence. Indeed, we are constantly bombarded with sounds around us, from the birdsong in nature, to the sound of traffic and people around us, to the constant buzz of the office air-conditioning system or our laptop fan. And then there is music. Many of us now, use music to ‘drown out’ and control the sounds we are exposed to. The next time you walk down a street, just look at the numbers of people who are wearing headphones or ear pods! This frequent exposure to music means that we are using these parts of our brains far more than our predecessors ever did.

In addition to this, music is often used at times which are very emotional anyway. Think about first dances at weddings, or the songs and music we associate with festivals and celebrations. That means our brains are already likely to be flooded with dopamine – a neurotransmitter usually associated with experiencing pleasure and rewards. Dopamine helps us to learn because it is part of vital pathways within the brain which seek out behaviours that are rewarding to us, so we can repeat them. It is asserted that dopamine is also released when we hear music that we like, thus creating a ‘double-hit’ of this vital chemical when music accompanies pleasurable experiences

Finally, it would be negligent of me not to consider one final aspect of music. Familiarity. Music is often repeated and heard over and over again. This degree of repetition/rehearsal would help us to learn most information, but with its musical accompaniment, songs are something we can easily recall and quickly sing along to.

If you combine these factors together, you begin to see how and why music is so powerful. We have lots of it on around us much of the time, and it connects with our emotions and events in our past. However, it has recently been suggested that this is not universally applicable, and that we are actually more likely to be reconnected with positive moments and memories, than with negative ones.

So, remember that if you want to give your memory a boost!

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