Research indicates that music stimulates emotions through specific brain circuits. We can easily see how music and the brain engage mood and emotion when a child smiles and begins to dance to a rhythm. He is experiencing an uplifted mood of joy from the music. We also see this when parent and child connect through song. Have you ever listened to a mother singing a lullaby to her newborn baby? It is probably one of the most significant bonding experiences between people you will ever witness.
Outside of music affecting the brain as an emotional experience, it is also a physical experience. One reason for this is a hormone related to bonding called oxytocin. The “cuddle hormone,” as it’s sometimes called, can be released by singing. No wonder music is such a profound emotional experience in the mind of both mother and child!
In addition, research indicates that music affects mood by producing an array of other beneficial molecules in our biological pharmacy.
Listening to music can create peak emotions, which increase the amount of dopamine, a specific neurotransmitter that is produced in the brain and helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. We often feel emotions are experienced from our heart, but an enormous part of emotional stimulus is communicated through the brain. Our newfound understanding of how music affects the brain and heart is leading to innovative ways to utilize music and the brain to create emotional understanding between people. A study from the Journal of Music Therapy shows that using songs as a form of communication could increase emotional understanding in autistic children. The study incorporated specific songs to portray different emotions. For example, a composition by Beethoven could be used to represent sadness, or the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams could be used to represent joy. The children could then indicate and identify emotions based on the songs that represented them. Music succeeded where verbal language failed. Music was able to bridge the brain and heart. Music evokes and engages our emotions in many stages of our lives both individually and in groups. Music can evoke the deepest emotions in people and help us process fear, grief, sadness, and resentment, even if these emotions are held on a subconscious level
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life, and can be greatly affected by the harmony of music and the brain. According to MedicineNet.com, “Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.”
To further clarify, when our brain is damaged, it can find or create new pathways to function properly. Amazingly, music can provide the stimuli to create these new pathways and to help the brain rewire itself in the case of brain injury. For instance, in a groundbreaking study by the University of Newcastle in Australia, popular music was used to assist patients with severe brain injuries in recalling personal memories. The music affected the patients’ brains ability to reconnect to memories they previously could not access.
It’s like getting directions to a location. If a road is closed, or you are stuck in traffic, there is sometimes an alternate route to get to the same place. Music can help map that alternate route in your brain!
A great example of this is shown in the case of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Congresswoman Giffords experienced a brain injury as the result of a gunshot wound, which affected her brain language center and left her almost unable to speak. By engaging her brain through music therapy, singing, and melodic intonation, she was able to provide new information to the mind through music and create a reorganization that helped her to make the connections necessary to relearn language.