Last year, Beats by Dre launched a massive marketing campaign to promote Powerbeats, the in-ear headphones designed with LeBron James. Of course, their goal was to capitalize on LeBron’s star power and sell more earbuds. The campaign was aptly named “My Music/My Power.” It was marketing genius, and it drove revenue into the billions. As it turns out, it’s more than just a catchy tag line superimposed over LeBron’s intense stare. In fact, there is power in music, and now we have science to back it up.
“I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” – Albert Einstein
Music and brain function are inextricably linked. Playing an instrument or listening to music is the brain’s equivalent of a cross-training workout. The impact of music on memory has been correlated to complex perception, cognition, and motor function since the landmark “Mozart Effect” study conducted in 1993. The controversial claim that listening to a Mozart sonata for ten minutes increases one’s IQ has been widely criticized and since disproven, but it did open the door for significant research exploring the effects of music on the human body, brain function, and even brain cell regeneration.
“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination.” – Plato
Over the last decade, neuroscientists have been using technology (fMRI, PET, EEG, MEG scans to learn more about the impact of music. The characteristics that make up a given piece of music – wave length, tone, hertz, timber, pitch, etc. – affect us in a variety of ways. We are aware of some and unaware of others.
However, you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to understand it. Just remember the acronym, LEAP.
L – Learning: We once believed that creativity and intelligence were fixed. Now we know that we can increase our capacity for learning and creativity with whole-brain thinking and learning strategies. This means integrating the logical left brain with the creative right brain for deeper cognition and greater creativity. When we process music, virtually the whole brain is involved.
E – Emotion: More than any other type of stimulus, music evokes feelings and heightens the emotions associated with them. The limbic system, the brain’s emotional center, is highly engaged when processing music. The limbic system is also the on/off switch for learning and tightly connected to the prefrontal cortex where executive functioning and high-level decision-making occur.
A – Anxiety: Extended periods of anxiety shrink neural networks, impair the immune system, inhibit learning and actually kill brain cells. Certain types of music decrease stress and anxiety as well as the hormones they produce. Stress-reducing music lowers cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases dopamine (the “feel good” hormone). This balancing act of the good and bad neurotransmitters not only makes us feel better, but it also enhances brain function.
P – Plasticity: Brain plasticity (or changes in neural activity) describes how experiences reorganize neural pathways in the brain. This rewiring process creates physical changes and it also impacts the functional capacity of the brain. Numerous studies show increased neural plasticity when playing an instrument, listening to music, or even just imagining a song!
“Music can change the world because it can change people.” – Bono
That explains why music changes us. But we also have the power to control how it changes us. The key is in understanding which playlist to cue up.
Rock music is shown to infuse a sense of power-related thoughts and behaviors. A recent study examined the effect of “power tunes” like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” They found that power music elicited higher abstract thinking, visionary (big picture) thinking, and an increased sense of illusory control – all traits associated with intellectual power. It’s probably not a coincidence that Donald Trump leaves the stage to Twisted Sister
Classical and baroque music can improve focus, memory and concentration. However, if you’re not a big fan of Mozart or Vivaldi, soft instrumental ambient music can induce relaxed alertness. While whole-brain thinking is essential for creativity and deeper insight, lyrics are found to compete for the brain’s attention and decrease one’s ability to concentrate and focus.
Unfamiliar music triggers abstract thinking and helps generate creative ideas. Sensory, free-flowing melodies like Impressionist music like Debussy and Ravel can stimulate the imagination and tap into your unconscious where many of your creative impulses live. Jazz and “new age” music with no dominant rhythm can also promote a sense of relaxed alertness and inspire creativity. Moderate volume is the key here. If it’s too soft, your brain will try to tune it in; if it’s too loud your brain will try to tune it out.
While we typically associate soothing tunes with relaxation, stress-reducing music really depends on the person and sometimes changes depending upon the day. Classic rock can release tension for some people while reggae and other dance forms can be emotionally uplifting for others. Upbeat pop music is also shown to create a sense of well-being. Interestingly, samba music can be both soothing and energizing. Identify the type of music that relaxes your mind, body, and spirit and all three will thank you.
Now that you know the science behind music, you know how to use it to your advantage. Experiment with your playlists and let the music take you where you want to be. Rock out with Queen before your next presentation. The next time you head into a brainstorming session, unlock your creativity with a little Debussy. Fire up the Rolling Stones to release a little tension. Quiet your mind with some ambient tunes. Or, as the Doobie Brothers so eloquently put it, just “listen to the music.”
Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people who want to improve their work and lives by understanding how the brain works and learning how to use that knowledge for greater personal and professional satisfaction.
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