Music is a powerful tool. Enough so that, when I heard a song I hadn’t listened to in years came on shuffle on my phone during my housework this week, I was immediately transported back to the place I first heard it. I could hear the roar of the engine on the highway, smell the air freshener in a friend’s beat-up car he drove as a teenager. Another song shuffled on while I was working on this week’s Lifestyles feature. This one took me right back to the first time I heard it, on an Amtrak train on my way to New York City for the holidays. Another song can take me right back to the cramped airplane seat on my very first flight. How is music this powerful?
According to Psychology Today, our brains are hard-wired to respond to music, especially when it comes to memories. “Listening to music that was played a lot during a significant life event many years ago can trigger a deeply nostalgic emotional experience. The feeling is not in the music, but in what it reminds us of.”
The brain is a fascinating organ that we actually do not know all that much about. But, we do know how memories work. Each time you recall a story, you are re-remembering it. I know, it blew my mind to learn this too. What it actually means is that we could be remembering a story from our childhood or teenhood and many of the details will be tarnished or changed by the passing of time and the number of times we have thought of it.
Before I spiral into a train of thought on memory alone, let’s return to music. Music can move us, literally.
According to Psychology Today, “we have the capacity and inclination to synchronize our body movement to external rhythmic stimuli, such as music. Rhythm can have a powerful effect on movement because the auditory system has a rich connection to motor systems in the brain. These connections help explain why music often makes us want to dance, and why we feel a natural inclination to tap along with music. Sounds that are loud, sudden and fast-paced generate increases in arousal. In contrast, relaxing music can reduce feelings of anxiety.”
When a friend shows you a new song, what is that way you are able to communicate non-verbally that you are enjoying it? Nodding your head to the rhythm of course. It turns out that rhythm is built into our brains. No wonder you won’t catch a still foot at a Bluegrass Festival.
Music is also a language of emotion. Emotions are complicated enough, but it turns out that they can be affected by or dictated by music. According to Psychology Today, “People who have difficulty expressing their feelings in words sometimes feel more comfortable expressing these emotions through music. Music has the capacity to mimic emotions.”
So, when any of us hear a song that is familiar enough to us, we will feel the emotions we felt when we first heard it. Or, if we hear a very emotional song for the first time, we may be capable of feeling the emotions the artist was feeling when they wrote and composed the song.
My big picture question when embarking on this research was focused on emotions and memory when it comes to music and our minds. Psychology Today put it best when they described why music sometimes makes us cry. “Music often makes us feel like crying because we experience a sense of awe and admiration. The feeling is a kind of wonder at realizing what other minds are capable of creating. Awe is described as sensitivity to greatness, accompanied by a sense of being overwhelmed by the object of greatness. In response to these emotions, we may experience goosebumps and motivation for the improvement of self and society.”
Be careful what you listen to. Apparently, it all has an effect on your brain. For me, I am going to do some further research into why some music can make us happy, and hopefully listen to a lot of it.
— Contact Emily Rice at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @BDTrice