Music and the Brain

I’ve been thinking about music a bit lately, contemplating its effect on the brain, wondering why we often love songs even when we can’t understand the words. What is it about Ode to Joy that makes me happy when I don’t have a clue what the singers are singing?

First of all, music changes our brain chemistry, increasing our norepinephrine levels, reducing anxiety, blood pressure and pain. It also improves sleep quality, mood, mental alertness and memory. This assumes that the music we’re hearing is music we enjoy.

Some people like rap, others classical, still others jazz. If you’re listening to a genre of music you don’t particularly like, the benefits you receive won’t be nearly as great. In fact, you might even find it annoying.

But your brain has to work hard when listening to music. There are structures and mathematical formulas at work, relationships between one note and another that we either find pleasing or discordant. And when the notes come together in a beautiful way, we feel uplifted by them.

Music captures and conveys emotion more powerfully than mere words, which is why so many protests and rallies play songs. They are aimed at building emotion, either positively or negatively, as a means of prodding their attendees to action.

I used to criticize myself for liking songs with silly words or words I didn’t understand. I believed it was irrational to sing the wrong words to ABBA’s Dancing Queen or Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. And it was.

But that wasn’t the point. The emotional core of my brain liked those songs and couldn’t have cared less that the logical part of my brain wasn’t processing them as completely as I wanted to. Being unable to understand the words in some ways purified the music, allowing me to enter a state of mind and just be.

So I don’t worry too much anymore that a particular song with a contagious melody and words I can’t discern has me humming along or replaying it in my ears for hours afterwards. I try to just go with the flow.

I let my right hemisphere run wild, the music allowing me to recall a fond memory or imagine a new concept. plucking some forgotten fragment and displaying it to my left hemisphere, a gift from a suitor hoping for at least a little acknowledgement from the dominant side of my brain.

In its own way, music begets knowledge without necessarily being accompanied by language. The rhythm and beat strike my eardrums, sending signals to my brain, which translates that sound into electrical impulses that shoot deep into my subconscious, activating creativity and providing a bulwark against the increasingly desperate siege of age.

Music is just fun. That’s all we really need to know.

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