Why Music is Science

Music has always been a huge part of my life. Whether I realize it or not, it is something that I can always rely on — both in times of stress and joy. Looking back, if I could give the middle school Adam a piece of advice, I would tell him to appreciate music more.

(image credit: https://www.thedj.co.uk/music/)

But what does it mean to “appreciate” music? We’ve constantly been told to not take x or y for granted, and music is no exception to this equation (at least in my life). And even though I thought I appreciated music way back as a pianist in first grade, I was ignorant to what appreciation really meant.

Over years and years of playing and listening to music, I now understand how complex it is. Although most can recognize the fact that music has tangible emotional implications, not everyone considers or appreciates the science behind it: the science behind why music can be so beneficial to us and why it can act as a stress-reliever is intriguing, but not thoroughly understood.

(image credit: https://tcnjjournal.pages.tcnj.edu/2013/04/13/the-science-behind-music/)

Research has noted that music is not only a luxury, but a necessity — a need to provide our brains with a higher level of thinking. This thinking naturally comes with our brains trying to process the various layers of sound waves we hear in music, no matter the genre. If it’s a classical Mozart concerto, our brains are automatically trying to dissect the piece into something we comprehend as “music.” Oh…that’s the french horn solo! Where is the downbeat of the drums? Why are the violins producing such a “bouncy” tone? We constantly try to answer these questions whether we realize it or not.

But don’t immediately assume that this type of “analysis” is a voluntary undertaking. In fact, it can get so involuntary to the point where we can’t focus without music by our side! Studies have shown that some students need music to act as the ambient background that otherwise would be pure silence. In this case, you might think that music can be a double-edged sword to some people, where without music, they would not be able to do anything. But remember — music also can stimulate creative and higher level thinking. Thus, are those people really at a disadvantage when they are always exposed to this kind of enhancement?

Music sparks a unique kind of creative thinking (image credit: http://theconversation.com/what-creativity-really-is-and-why-schools-need-it-81889)

And we’ve all heard that playing an instrument can improve our motor and reasoning skills. Connections between music playing and improved mental skills have been established, but the exact causes behind these relationships are not clearly understood. As a very surface-level explanation, studies have shown that the connection between reading notes and translating them into physical actions increases our ability to make these kinds of intuitive connections in other areas. These kinds of connections include but are not limited to visual attention, problem-solving skills, and identifying relationships.

Additionally, we all know that everyone has their own music preferences and idiosyncrasies. A study at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto asked 19 participants to listen to various excerpts of music and indicate how much money they would spend on a given song. All this was done while their brain activity was analyzed through a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, and it was found that increased activity in a part of the brain called the nuclear accumbens was associated with an increased liking toward that particular song.

fMRI (image credit: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/body/theres-hope-for-fmri-despite-major-software-flaws/)

But what determines why certain genres of music increase nuclear accumbens activity for different people? Are people wired genetically such that our brains naturally favor certain sound waves over others? Do we even hear music the same way other people do?

Another study found that when 17 participants all listened to the same piece, similar patterns of activity and networking were noted across various areas of the brain. Thus, our brains are designed to theoretically appreciate certain parts of music exactly as other people would! This means that the idiosyncrasies in music preference should logically be a result of different levels of activity in different parts of the brain. However, there is still so much more to research. For now, scientists say that one reason we may perceive music differently is because of our own personal experiences and social backgrounds.

Who knows where the science behind music can take us? As we continue to understand it more and more, our appreciation for music will continue to rise higher and higher — I encourage all of you to find some time to kick back, listen to some music, and really appreciate!

For more detailed accounts of the aforementioned research, check out the following links:

Adam Zhang

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Inspiring scientific literacy, self-efficacy, and student interest in STEM. Run by students from the March for Science: Students for Science

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