Deciphering the Pleasures of the Universal Language

Music is a part of our daily lives and it offers a plethora of unknown benefits.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Nada Hameed

Every morning, thousands of students walk to the Tribeca Bridge with headphones on, music blasting into their ears. Music is a common part of our daily lives, and it can lift our moods dramatically. But how can a collection of sounds have such a strong impact on our minds?

Music is the arrangement of sounds, normally with the elements of melody, harmony, tempo, and rhythm. When songs are created, these elements are carefully organized to make the song appealing and addictive to listeners—hence why certain songs get stuck in our heads. Moreover, human brains are designed to seek patterns in our random world. The repetitive tunes in music give our brain a continuous pattern that it can understand, which is why people like music. When we’re listening to a song we like, pleasure-inducing hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin are released, activating our reward system and creating feelings of contentment.

Interestingly, the music we currently listen to as teenagers will be more deeply ingrained in our brains than any other music we’ll ever listen to. The brain undergoes neurodevelopment at the highest pace during the teenage years because of all the hormones released. These hormones link memories, the emotions associated with them, and the music itself together as one set. So if adults listen to a song that they enjoyed in their teenage years, the song will cause those same “feel-good” hormones to be released in the present because the memory will be retrieved from when they were teenagers. However, songs we don’t like aren’t processed in our brains as music. Instead, they’re processed as a group of sounds. The majority of the time, the brain even interprets it as a warning or signal of danger. Different people have different music genre preferences, but music can provide great benefits for all.

One advantage of music is its ability to lift moods and help create social connections and trust between people. In addition to promoting happiness, oxytocin is also linked with creating reliance and belief within others. Experiments conducted by researchers have proven that when people are exposed to oxytocin, they are more likely to trust people, even if there’s a risk attached. Therefore, this music-induced oxytocin production can help us bond with people and create connections. Additionally, though what makes a “good song” is highly subjective, scientists have discovered that music with a high tempo—a little higher than that of the average pop song, which is around 150 beats per minute—is the best type of feel-good song. Music in the major key with uplifting lyrics can also contribute to a happier song.

Music can do wonders for energy. Music with a fast tempo arouses the brain because our bodies try to stay in sync with the music tempo. If the music is fast, then it speeds up our nervous system and increases the amount of adrenaline produced. Adrenaline is a hormone that increases blood circulation speed and activates the fight-or-flight response. These factors cause us to feel energized. Also, a strong rhythm, like what’s found in the songs of a pump-up playlist, increases step frequency so that the body can stay in sync with the music. Studies have shown that people who work out while listening to this type of music have greater endurance and more motivation. The approximate tempo to create this effect is around 125 to 140 beats per minute, which is the speed of a fast pop song. Thus, music has the ability to energize and, as a result, motivate.

Relaxation can also come from music. Cortisol is another hormone that contributes to the fight-or-flight response. As a stress hormone, it increases pulse and tenses muscles. Music with a low tempo can decrease the amount of cortisol released, and therefore relax the muscles. Background piano music is common in waiting rooms at hospitals for this reason; it soothes patients’ minds and alleviates stress. Experiments demonstrate that slow-tempo music also assists in recovering from a stressful or painful experience.

Music therapy is based on music’s stress-relieving qualities and its ability to improve moods. This therapy is used to help patients with depression recover, and it improves the brains of people with chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This works because music triggers parts of the brain that are affected by these neurological disorders, thus forming new connections. For instance, a song’s rhythm might trigger the cerebellum, which is responsible for complex motor functions. When people with motor coordination problems listen to the steady beat, it makes their coordination steadier.

What’s more, music has an amazing effect on the quality, quantity, and effectiveness of sleep. When we fall asleep listening to music, our brains translate the sound waves into electric signals, which trigger internal physical effects. These effects make sleep come faster and resolve internal issues that interfere with sleep, improving sleep quality. Slow-tempo music (60 to 100 beats per minute) relaxes the autonomic nervous system, which also contributes to better sleep quality. Moreover, music is a distraction from the troubling thoughts that many have at night that prevent sleep. The relaxation benefits of music allow for the body to feel more energized and recovered in the morning.

Overall, music—something that is so common in our daily lives—helps us in more ways than we realize. So the next time you need to improve your mood after bombing a test, or desire an escape from the anxieties of everyday life, pop on some headphones, turn on some tunes, and let music restore you to a calmer and happier state.