It can alter your mood, give you strength and understand you when you need it most
When we are suffering, sometimes it feels best to be alone. We have friends and loved ones around us, and we can reach out to them at any time, but we’d rather just be alone with our thoughts, away from distractions, connecting to ourselves in the quiet.
Music can help us immeasurably during this time. It’s an understanding force, and there’s something about its wordlessness which helps us to see our reflection in its mirror without our having to explain anything. We can just be there — listening or playing the music. The music matches our mood, or it can help us change it too— it’s as we wish, since we choose its purpose.
Music’s ability to change our mood into the direction we want, to understand and comfort us, to soothe or stimulate us in whatever way we need— is powerful and life-enhancing. In his book Musicophilia, neuroscientist Oliver Sacks talks about this power:
Music can move us to the heights or depths of emotion. It can persuade us to buy something, or remind us of our first date. It can lift us out of depression when nothing else can. It can get us dancing to its beat.
Music’s understanding begins where words leave off
Music seems to understand our emotions as it communicates directly with us. When words leave off, music begins, wrote the German poet Heinrich Heine describing how music enters and fills the realm where words can’t quite thrive or describe.
Music finds its way to commiserate with us. Sometimes we want to remain in our melancholic state. Music doesn’t ask us to change this, but sits with us there.
Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness. — Maya Angelou
This can be of untold comfort to anyone who is struggling with the challenges of life — with frustrations, anxiety, depression, yearning or sadness of any kind.
Inspiring a more positive state through music
Sometimes music can inspire us and help us to go into another more positive state. Music can give us energy and joy when we need it. It can shake us out of a mood that we don’t wish to have. It can help us achieve the opposites of what we really feel — when we’re nervous, it can calm us, when we’re tired it can invigorate us, when we are disconnected it can inspire us once again.
We connect to people through the music, the people who created the music or are performing — we sing their songs, hum their melodies and don’t feel alone anymore.
How does music impact our brain and mood?
The influence that music has on us is becoming better understood through neuroscience and the study of music’s impact on our brain. Through the study of the brain, it has become understood that almost all parts of the brain are used simultaneously when we listen to music, or perform it.
Using various techniques to track brain activity, be it with electrodes or different methods of scanning, one immediately discovers in medical imaging that almost all regions of the brain are addressed by music: the right as well as the left cerebral hemisphere, front and rear regions, the cortex as well as the interior limbic system. Music is one of the very few stimuli that activate our whole brain.(from “Classical Music: Expect the Unexpected” by Kent Nagano, Inge Kloepfer)
Conductor Kent Nagano interviewed neuroscientist
about the way music interacts with the brain for his book Classical Music: Expected the Unexpected. Before Daniel became a neuroscientist, he was a musician and record producer. He’s the author of two fascinating books that combine his knowledge of the brain and music — This is Your Brain On Music and The World in Six Songs. In the interview, Kent questioned Daniel on the powers that music has to change our mood:
Music causes physical reactions in the brain and sets a whole cascade of chemical processes in motion. This has a positive effect on the well-being of most people. Music heightens oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is a hormone that increases our willingness to get involved with other people. It creates trust between people and is disseminated, for example, when singing together.
Music also augments the production of the antibody immunoglobulin A, which is so important for our health. There are also studies that show that after only a few weeks of music therapy melatonin, adrenaline and noradrenaline levels increase. Noradrenaline and adrenaline put us in a state of heightened attention and excitement. They activate the reward centers in the brain.
Listening to music and, of course, making music influence the serotonin level and thus the very neurotransmitter that is connected to the regulation of our mood.” (from “Classical Music: Expect the Unexpected” by Kent Nagano, Inge Kloepfer)
In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks describes, too, how music animates people with Parkinson’s disease who cannot otherwise move, gives words to stroke patients who cannot otherwise speak, and calms and organizes people whose memories are stolen by Alzheimer’s or amnesia.
Sacks stresses the power of music to communicate to us, and to stimulate and develop our brains in extraordinary ways that are singular to music.
Music occupies more areas of our brain than language does — humans are a musical species.
When we were teenagers and struggled with our fluctuating and often confused feelings, music was there with us. We identified songs who became our favourites, and music came to symbolize certain moments in our lives and described how we felt along the way. Often as young people we would let music define our personal style to the outside world. We were rock music lovers, or head bangers — death metal was our thing, or we were “into” the romance of Rachmaninoff, or the experimentation of John Cage.
A big part of music is memory. The memory part of our brain is found in the hippocampus. It’s here that our brain remembers patterns, moods, rhythm— it remembers musical experiences, and the context they were in.
We remember songs perhaps more readily than we remember words. Because our mind so easily remembers the pattern of a melody, this memory resides strongly with us. When we are listening to music, our past memory of music causes us to have expectations about what will happen next. We have the extraordinary situation of residing in the present (listening), the future (anticipating), and remembering the past music that we’ve just heard — all at once. Music is different from the other arts in that it is “time” based — and in this unusual and unique way, through music, our brains reside in the past, present and future, at the same time.
Music is engaging our entire brains when we interact with it — all is connected — rhythm, patterns, mood, hormones and the connections our minds make between musical sections or elements. When we hear the music later in life, again and again, our memories retain so much more than just the music itself. They retain the feeling, the context and the experiences too.
Music, then, reminds us of our past, our stories, our moods, and of the sounds that bring us happiness or comfort, or that once caused us to cry or be reflective. The mood is connected to the music as if it is a musical element itself (like pitch, harmony, or rhythm). Music brings us the whole package — sound, memory, beauty and emotion. All at once.
We remember ourselves through our music
When we listen to music we know, we feel familiarity with ourselves. We know this music, therefore we know ourselves — we are reminded of our stories, our past. The music describes some part of what we like and know — some past experience or new expectation.
When we hear a certain song, our mind flies back to an old memory of dancing to it, when we hear an epic Mahler symphony we remember what we were doing during the night that we attended that concert. Our music is a wordless journal of our innermost emotions and thoughts. It is our inner self reflected back at us. Through music we are turning the pages of our book.
So when we listen to melancholic music, the serenity and the introspection of this music draws us close to our inner feelings while at the same time presenting us with our memories. It feels like the music has been with us before, and remembers and understands all of the complexities that go into our current sadness, frustration or desire — it remembers those moments where music made something special and where emotion defined a story in our life.
Without the music, we might have forgotten this emotion that makes up who we are. But music connects it back to us again.
Music helps us alter our mood or to define it
One thing that music can do is to affect our mood. Sometimes it can shake us out of a mood that we don’t wish to have. But sometimes we just want to match how we are feeling in a moment. That matching is therapeutic because it connects us more deeply to the emotions and moods we are experiencing.
Daniel Levitin says:
Music can help us to describe our emotional state of mind, because people don’t just use music as some kind of emotional regulator to get themselves into a different mood when they’re angry, or when they slump on their sofa at home, full of adrenaline after a stressful work day. Apparently, they also use music to define their mood.
Classical music — especially cheerful music — has a profound impact on our health…Music also significantly reduces the stress hormone cortisol — an experience that everyone knows when, after a hectic day, they put on music to relax in the evening. If different musical activities cause a change in the concentration of messenger substances in the brain, then the potency of sounds can hardly be doubted.(from “Classical Music: Expect the Unexpected” by Kent Nagano, Inge Kloepfer)
Sometimes we need solitude to sort everything out but we don’t want to be completely alone. Music can provide a temporary withdrawal and enable us to connect more deeply with our subconscious and to our buried memories while keeping us company. It helps us to relax into a resorting process, so that we can tumble possibilities and memories around into our minds and sort out what we can do next.
When we are absorbed by listening to music, we are temporarily protected from external stimuli. We enter a special, secluded world. This retreat allows a re-ordering process within the mind — Anthony Storr in Music and the Mind
Music provides an escape. It whisks us away from our troubles or stresses for a moment and gives us the rest and escape we need from the outer world. It connects us to the whole of ourselves as our brain sorts itself out, and relaxes into its creative source.
Order out of chaos
Perhaps one of the important aspects of music is that it brings order out of chaos. Musical notes create patterns that our brains perceive and enjoy. Our minds take note of the patterns of steps and leaps in the musical line, in repeating rhythms and the myriad of mathematical combinations that make up rhythm, metre and time. Our minds perceive the way that repetition is used in structure — a repeating chorus and verses in a song for instance.
This is the math side of music. Patterns and congruences are recognized, stimulating and soothing to our minds. We resonate, personally, with harmony — as chaotic and unrelated notes are reordered into beautiful chords and triads. This seems to bring a soothing harmony to the chaos of our lives.
Famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin said:
Music creates order out of chaos, for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous.
The Paradox of Tragedy
There is an aspect of music and the arts which seems puzzling. This is the paradox of tragedy, a paradox addressed by philosopher David Hume in his essay On Tragedy, and originally questioned by Aristotle in Poetics. Why is it that we revere tragedy as one of the highest of art forms. Why do we feel more connected to artistic works with great magnitude and seriousness, human struggle and conflict, pain and drama? If human misery is repulsive to us in real life, why do we take pleasure in experiencing it in the arts? This is the paradox of tragedy.
Thinking about music, why do we cherish the experience of being moved by melancholic or emotionally expressive music? We all enjoy how exciting, joyful, and dance-like music makes us feel. But who among us would say that what we truly find special in music is when it moves us to cry?
Perhaps, in many ways, it’s because it reminds us of our struggles and of our intimate selves. In those moments where the music surprises us, or swells beyond where we expected, or is touching us through a movingly sweet combination of harmonies and tones — we become connected to our emotions and this is a joy to us.
So often in life we are taking action, we are managing challenges, we are propelling ourselves forward in thought and determination in our work and daily lives. Only rarely do we come to those tender, human moments where we allow ourselves to connect to our inner sides, to mourn our sad memories, or to open ourselves to our fears and despair.
Music is our mirror
When we experience music, we come back to it being a mirror. Music is a mirror of “us”, and when we listen to music, we allow each of our minds to connect to its entire self — the memories, the subconscious, the emotions, the things that we resonate with personally. And we feel like we are connecting to other people, too, and their own struggles, challenges and emotions — through the music that they have created and performed.
There is so much about our brain, our personality, our way of growing and learning that is still being discovered and understood. Exactly how music impacts us is becoming more and more understood through neuroscience.
But we do know that music reaches us emotionally — reminds and connects us to ourselves. We know that experiencing music’s beauty, rhythm and harmony powerfully impacts the quality of how we feel. Music can be such an important therapeutic power in so many ways.
It comes back to the understanding force that music is for us. Music understands us because in many ways it is us. All of us.
When you are seeking understanding of your self, or your situation, or are looking to be understood in a moment — put on some music, or pick up an instrument, and you will connect to yourself, find healing and have comfort. You will experience the therapeutic power of music in your life.