The Rewards of Music: There's More than Meets the Ear
Updated: Aug 23
Music is a word that resounds worldwide. If I asked you, “What’s your favorite song?” A specific genre of music probably appeared in your head, or a specific song immediately played after that question. Why did that happen and why specifically that song or genre? Did you feel a certain emotion about that song? Why does that happen? Keep on reading and these questions will be answered!
Before we get into the science, let’s talk about the history of music. Music history is as tumultuous as its pieces- from the different genres available to the different instruments you can play. Prehistoric flutes have been found from archeological digs and have proven that music has been around for a long time all throughout the world. Creating music was an outlet for creativity and a way to bring people together. It was one of the fundamental steps to creating culture and society.
The most popular and well-known music time periods were the European Common-practice periods after the Renaissance period. These include the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods. Famous composers that are known worldwide from these periods are Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, along with many others. It was from these composers that the standard forms of “Classical” music were created.
Classical music was recommended for infants to “boost brain waves and growth,” but there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to completely support the advice. However, current research shows that listening to music increases the reward system of your brain and stimulates the pathways that enhance cognition. The nucleus accumbens is an area in the brain where rewards to outside stimuli are processed. Music is shown to increase signals to this area and produce dopamine- a chemical that makes you feel happy and rewarded. It is also the reason why you feel strong emotions associated with certain songs or genres of music. The more dopamine produced, the happier and the more “rewarded” your brain feels (1).
Additionally, music has shown to increase connections within your brain and encourage more neuronal firing. This also allows you to associate music with strong emotions and memories. The act of listening to music sends signals from your ear to your brain and boosts the connections made in your brain. For many years, classical music was recommended for studying. Current research studies are working to determine if there is a connection between music and higher thinking, and trends point favorably to music’s positive effects (4).
Music also benefits pregnant women and their unborn children. Full-term pregnant women were given an anxiety and stress test before and after giving birth. It was shown that music intervention before, during, and after labor reduced the anxiety felt by the patient. This could improve the delivery process and post-labor recovery of patients and their children, although more research is still ongoing (3).
While listening to music has many benefits, learning and playing music has even more advantages. Passive listening to music connects the ears to the brain, but playing a musical instrument or singing will connect the hands, ears, and brain together. Musicians practice by reading sheet music and translating what they read into physical motions to enact on their instruments. Research shows that the repetitive practice of musicians with reading visual patterns (music sheets) will stimulate the connections between the auditory and motor regions of the brain, along with integration regions within the brain. Neuronal plasticity will increase due to long-term stimulation from multiple practice sessions. Due to these findings, researchers suggest proposing learning an instrument to patients with neurological or developmental disorders to strengthen or relearn the connections between the auditory and motor regions (2).
Music surrounds us in our everyday lives and is a constant for most people. This is advantageous due to research that shows music’s effectiveness on our brain’s reward system and the overall connections within our brains. The usage of music in the hospital with patients opens the door to possible advancement of music therapy in the medical field.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any organization with which I am affiliated.
See References Below.
Author: Carina Tse
Medical Student, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM)
1. Mavridis I. N. (2015). Music and the nucleus accumbens. Surgical and radiologic anatomy : SRA, 37(2), 121–125. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00276-014-1360-0
2. Schlaug G. (2015). Musicians and music making as a model for the study of brain plasticity. Progress in brain research, 217, 37–55. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.pbr.2014.11.020
3. García González, J., Ventura Miranda, M. I., Requena Mullor, M., Parron Carreño, T., & Alarcón Rodriguez, R. (2018). Effects of prenatal music stimulation on state/trait anxiety in full-term pregnancy and its influence on childbirth: a randomized controlled trial. The journal of maternal-fetal & neonatal medicine : the official journal of the European Association of Perinatal Medicine, the Federation of Asia and Oceania Perinatal Societies, the International Society of Perinatal Obstetricians, 31(8), 1058–1065. https://doi.org/10.1080/14767058.2017.1306511
4. Chen, W. G., Iversen, J. R., Kao, M. H., Loui, P., Patel, A. D., Zatorre, R. J., & Edwards, E. (2022). Music and Brain Circuitry: Strategies for Strengthening Evidence-Based Research for Music-Based Interventions. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 42(45), 8498–8507. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1135-22.2022