Kelly McSweeney

Sep 23rd 2019

Does the Science of Music Confirm the Clichés?


Humans have been making music since the beginning of time. Although this sounds like a platitude, there is evidence to back this claim.

Consider the 40,000-year-old bone flute that was left in a Central European cave around the dawn of human settlement in Europe. Going back even further, fossils of the Neanderthal’s ancestor Homo heidelbergensis show that they had similar vocal physiology to modern humans, so they might have been able to sing. Discover suggests that it’s scientifically possible that music has a 500-millennium history.

The science of music can help us better understand how humans are influenced by song, and how music and emotions are intertwined.

Music Can Enhance Intelligence and Creativity

Many studies have demonstrated the benefits of music, but can it really boost your intelligence?

A Harvard study discovered that musicians’ brains have more bundles of nerves connecting the left and right hemispheres. A study published on PLOS One found that “musicians learned response sequences more easily than non-musicians as their responses were faster and more accurate.”

Listening to music engages practically every part of the brain:

  • Cochlear nuclei
  • The brain stem
  • The cerebellum
  • Auditory cortices on both sides of the brain
  • Memory centers of the brain (hippocampus, the lowest parts of the frontal lobe)

Additionally, tapping along with music involves your cerebellum; composing music fires up the visual cortex; and song lyrics utilize the language centers in the temporal and frontal lobes.

Therapeutic Benefits of Music

The science of music makes it an excellent tool for treating neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, brain injury, anxiety and depression. For example, Parkinson’s patients have used music to improve their balance and movement. According to Harvard Health, patients who listened to music in the operating room experienced less pain.

Mic cites several other positive medicinal effects of music, such as a study where listening to Mozart decreased epilepsy in patients, even when the patients were in comas. Music therapy isn’t just a new aged holistic approach. Plato suggested using music to treat anxiety, Aristotle considered music a therapeutic tool, and in ancient Greece, Apollo ruled both music and healing.

Music Changes Your Mood

Music and emotions are connected. Different types of melodies and rhythms evoke various emotional responses; even ambient noise can boost creativity, according to Mic. While a slow ballad can give you the chills, a peppy pop song could make you dance.

There are chemical and biological explanations for why music evokes such strong feelings. Mic notes that music increases libido, and listening to music can elevate serotonin levels in a person’s body. A French study found that listening to romantic music increased the odds of single women giving out their phone numbers.

Athletes often train with music, and several studies have shown that music can improve endurance and help us use energy more efficiently during exercise. In a 2012 study, cyclists who peddled along to music used 7% less oxygen than the control group, says Mic.

A study published on Scientific Reports details that music can evoke “deeply personal, often unsolicited and emotionally-laden, thoughts and memories.” The National Association of Music Merchants (NAAM) Foundation mentions a study that found people who actively engaged with classical music, rather than passively listening to it, had a happier, more emotional response. The NAAM Foundation also cites a study that says people who are more open to experiences “are likely to feel the most chills while listening to music.”

We feel music on such a deep emotional level that it’s hard to quantify its impact. Ultimately, scientific studies have confirmed that the cliches about music are true. It is the ultimate universal language, with the power to change the way you feel.