In school, rebellious students would attempt to hide their headphones beneath their hoodies, preferring to listen to the sensational rhythms of R&B or perhaps the upbeat melody of a pop tune than to the teacher’s lesson. Eventually, the teacher would often come onto their antics and angrily awaken the “zoned out” student, pulling them from their blissful listening session, angrily tugging at their headphones, or aggressively motioning the student to remove them and rejoin the class.
Sure, maybe it’s not the best move to tune out the Pythagorean theorem or the process of photosynthesis… (though, let’s be real, when was the last time you used either one?) but perhaps music should join the ranks of other areas of study our education system deems important. We certainly believe it should. After all, numerous studies have found that music powerfully stimulates the brain, bolsters creativity, and improves cognitive function, Plus, listening to music improves our mood by releasing brain chemicals like dopamine which are linked to happiness. Instead of viewing music as a way to “tune out,” we ought to celebrate the way it enables us to tune in.
If there’s anything I miss since moving to New York City from the suburbs, it’s driving in a car and blasting music with all the windows rolled down. Whether I had chosen one of my go-to Spotify playlists or a specific album I felt resonated with that certain moment, there was nothing as sensational as being so in tune with the music. I felt like I was the main character in a coming-of-age movie, staring out into the world thinking solemnly. I loved driving and was rediscovering old songs but found equal pleasure in finding new songs and artists. Both were stimulating for different reasons, and science supports this.
Studies show that listening to a new song for the first time jump-starts creativity because the brain must work to process these new sounds and words. As a result of this mental exercise, the brain is kept alert and is pushed to think in more flexible ways. Listening to old songs also has amazing benefits: according to a recent study by the AARP, when we listen to our favorite songs or music that we like, our brain network connectivity improves as our memory encoding systems, including the hippocampus, are put to work to remember lyrics. Just as amazing: it doesn’t matter what kind of music you listen to! Whether Beethoven, Bon Jovi, or Beyoncé, as long as you enjoy the music, your brain benefits.
There’s something particularly special to be said about live music, too. After all, those who said they frequently went to music performances in the study (that is, they were willing to buy tickets for an artist they presumably liked) were more likely to rate their brain health as excellent or very good than those who didn’t! Who knew investing in your next concert ticket would also be an investment toward your brain health?
Beyond the power of music to enhance creativity and cognition, music also profoundly affects mood. Listening to music has been found to have benefits similar to that of meditation, including reducing the release of stress hormones, improving blood flow, and easing pain (this, according to multiple studies synthesized in Time Magazine). According to a peer-reviewed study from the UK and Finland, even sad music can lift mood or bring pleasure and comfort to listeners in times of grief. We can appreciate the catharsis of crying to a sad song when we’re already sad and finally letting the tears flow and release. It comes as no surprise, then, that listening to upbeat music especially improves mood, which two studies in the Journal of Positive Psychology found. Whether listening to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go on” or Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” music speaks to us from a place beyond just a shallow “those lyrics really resonate with me” or “what a catchy beat!” response. Music reaches into the innermost layer of our soul and affects the way we emote by altering our brain chemistry. In the end, it’s more than just the sound of music… it’s the science of music that matters.
What’s beautiful about our modern day and age is that we easily have access to all kinds of music, and nifty devices provide even more avenues to enjoy our favorite songs and discover new ones. Sure, I miss driving to Tame Impala with my windows rolled down and my hair blowing in the wind, but listening to Fleetwood Mac on the Subway through my AirPods is also pretty great.