Why is music therapeutic?

Jean Sibelius once said, “Music begins where the possibilities of language end.” This quote makes it evident that music is nothing but a universal form of communication that extends beyond literary scripts and tools. Although, have you ever wondered why music has the effect on us it does, and how it’s related to psychology?

I interviewed some of my peers. Music is fluid which means that it changes for some people from time to time. According to one of my classmates, she never listened to Bollywood music before coming to Woodstock. But after being here for a while, her music taste has changed completely! Although, some students state that their music taste is static.

I read a book called “This Is Your Brain on Music” and the information I found was mind-boggling.

To be moved by music (physically and emotionally) the tune needs to have a readily predictable beat. Composers carry this by subdividing the beat in different ways since beat divisions create a strong momentum, and accenting some notes differently than others with the performance being a contributing factor as well. This explains why pop singers such as Michael Jackson and George Michael are still famous amongst people, (even after their deaths) since their selection of beats and performance videos long live in the hearts of a major population across the globe.

The next thing which hooks me to my favourite music is the groove of that particular piece. Groove is the quality that moves the song forward, the musical equivalent to a book that one can’t put down. Musicians generally tend to use grooves that are not strictly metronomic, or in a simpler word: machinelike.

Now, this is where the oldest part of the brain comes into the picture: the cerebellum. It’s one function that is crucial to music: timing; along with controlling body movement. According to research done by famous neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin in 2005, listening to music caused a cascade of brain regions to become activated in a particular order. First, the auditory cortex for the initial processing of the components of the sound. Then the frontal regions, such as BA44 and BA47. Finally, a network of regions—the mesolimbic system—is involved in arousal, pleasure, and the transmission of opioids and the production of dopamine, culminating in activation in the nucleus accumbens. In layman’s language, Cerebellum contains dopamine receptors that result in happiness or joy when we listen to music. Current neuropsychological theories associate positive mood and affect with increased dopamine levels, one of the reasons that many of the newer antidepressants act on the dopaminergic system. Music is a means for improving people’s moods. Maybe this is the reason why music therapy is so popular amongst troubled adults.

Musical genre and pitch also play a major part in why we like the music we like. Each musical genre has its own set of rules and its form. The more we listen, the more those rules become instantiated in our memories. Unfamiliarity with the structure can lead to frustration or a simple lack of appreciation. Knowing a genre or style is to effectively have a category, built around it, and to be able to categorize new songs as being either members or non-members of that category. Now I know why my friends listen to alternative, rock and roll, country music even though they all come under one generic category: rock.

Some people can’t stand the thumping low beats of modern hip-hop; others can’t stand what they describe as the high-pitched whininess of violins (example: me!!). Part of this may be a matter of physiology; literally. Different ears may transmit different parts of the frequency spectrum, causing some sounds to appear pleasant and others aversive. There may also exist psychological associations, both positive and negative, to various instruments.

Musical preferences also have a large social component based on our knowledge of the singer or musician. The point is that our early exposure is often our most profound, and becomes the foundation for further musical understanding. For example, I listen to a lot of Bollywood music because that’s what I’ve grown up listening to.

One Canadian study found that certain personality traits relate to musical taste in adolescents: young people with lower self-esteem and a higher sense of alienation were more drawn to “heavy” music and those who tended to focus on rule-following and have trouble being independent preferred “light” music. Teenagers who felt relatively secure and confident tended to have more eclectic musical preferences being independent preferred “light” music and teenagers who are the complete opposite listen to more eclectic music. Now I know why people my age are fans of “depressing music”.

Regardless of the genre of music preferred, it’s the experience and richness of music that we care about most.

(Levitin, Daniel J. The world in six songs: How the musical brain created human nature. Penguin, 2008.)

Preksha is a staff reporter.

Edited by Ira.

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