First contact we have with music is in our mother’s womb, in the form of her heartbeat. When we are born, we are attuned to the sound of her voice.
Music has been a part human life and of civilization since the very beginning. It’s a big part of various rituals in every religion and more importantly, an ultimate tool for emotional expression. Feelings that are induced by specific melodies can be universal, touching a person regardless of cultural diversity.
A study was conducted by researchers from University of Montreal in Canada and the Technical University Berlin in Germany. They compared the reactions of 40 Canadians and 40 Mbenzélé Pygmies from Congo to 19 short musical excerpts lasting 30-90 seconds. 11 of the musical pieces were Western, including orchestral music from movies like Star Wars, Schindler’s List and Psycho, and 8 were ceremonial Pygmy music excerpts. During the listening researchers measured heart and respiration rate, amount of sweat on the subjects’ hands. After the listening, subjects expressed how the sounds made them feel. Results have shown that there is an obvious cultural difference – Canadians reporting a wider range of emotions listening to Western music, while Pygmies felt more positive emotions regardless of the music style. This difference stems from Pygmies’ tradition to sing happy songs in various occasions, stressful or joyful. When a baby starts crying, mother would sing to calm it; when men go hunting they sing to elevate their spirits and have more endurance. Music is a big part of their coping mechanisms and they believe that harmony of the forest is kept with joyful sounds.
But regardless of the cultural differences the results have also shown great similarity in how calm or exciting music was to the two groups and how they felt the main theme of the songs. This reveals the universal quality of certain vibrations and the way they affect every human. There is a universal element to music that connects all people, no matter which side of the world they’re coming from.
Music is the universal language of emotions and much, much more. It can have mood changing effect, stimulating the formation of certain neurotransmitters, and even change structure of the brain. Scans show that brains of musicians and people who do not play any instruments are different in their structure. Musicians have bigger, more symmetrical hemispheres with areas responsible for auditory processing, motor control and spatial coordination being larger. They also show superior memory, cognitive flexibility and of course, superior auditory skills.
Playing an instrument has a beneficial effect on the brain, and it’s never too late to start – older people who play an instrument and practice every week show significantly slower decline of cognitive abilities than their peers who do not play.
Playing an instrument is great, but listening to music can have beneficial effects too. As we mentioned at the beginning, humans learn to respond to rhythm early in their life. Over time the preference for sounds and music changes, as our brains change too. By the time we grow up music already has a big part of our everyday life. We spend hours every week listening to it, actively or passively. The biggest effect is seen in its mood altering ability, vibrations tickling every part of the brain and stimulating formation of dopamine. This quality made it a part of various therapies for depression and reducing seizures. Music is even used in helping mentally disabled and autistic children to better comprehend emotions and extend their vocabulary.
Different sounds have different effects. For example, listening to fast-paced, energetic music while exercising has a better effect than training in silence. Music competes for our attention, and thus reduces the sense of being tired. Cyclists who listened to music needed 7% less oxygen than those who cycled in silence, which suggests it can even help in better energy management.
When we are blue, we tend to listen to sad music with lyrics that are easy to identify with. We do this because it gives us a big emotional relief, to know that someone else feels the same and that we are not alone. Feeling that you are understood helps a lot to push through the tough times.
Harmony of vibrations that we call music has a magical ability of stimulating our brains, thus changing our mood and life in general. Connecting people, it makes them feel hopeful and understood. It has an effect on both maker and the listener; it can alter the state of mind, inspire revolutions and yet is immaterial. Never seen, only felt.