From the Proms to Glastonbury, music is part of the fabric of British culture. It’s something we’re rightly proud of. After all, your favourite song can cheer you up after a bad day, calm you down if you’re feeling anxious or turn a good mood into an even better one.
But how? What’s happening in your brain to cause this reaction? And are there any other ways that music can benefit your health?
We asked our smart network of doctors to help us unlock the mysterious power of music. As usual, they were only too happy to help!
Music keeps your mind sharp
The ability to concentrate is important in everyday life. Tasks like driving and preparing a meal can have a potentially negative impact on your health if you’re not concentrating properly.
There are plenty of studies that show music can help you focus on the task at hand, while it can also make a boring task seem less of a chore and prevent your mind wandering.
This might seem like a strange concept. After all, isn’t noise distracting? This is where your choice of music comes into play.
A 1993 study claimed to have discovered a ‘Mozart Effect’, suggesting that his was the most effective music to encourage high performance. However, as this study didn’t test any other types of music (other groups were tested in silence, or heard verbal instructions), all it really showed was that any music can be good for your concentration.
Does this mean that music you like is best?
As you might expect, this claim has divided opinion.
Some claim that music you’re not keen on is likely to distract you, so it follows that music you enjoy will have the opposite effect. However, one Taiwanese study in 2011 claimed that music you neither like nor dislike is best, as both can prove equally distracting.
Then there’s the type of music. For example, dance music will tell your brain that it’s time to throw some shapes, which isn’t what you need when you’re trying to get something done. On the other hand, music that’s too sad can ruin your enthusiasm for the task at hand.
It’s not hard to see how the politics of your office playlist can become such a hot topic!
One thing we can say for sure is that playing an instrument is great for your concentration. It’s a crucial skill for tasks like reading sheet music and keeping time with other performers. Playing a musical instrument exercises parts of your brain linked to visual, auditory and motor skills, so it’s one of the best things you can do to keep your mind sharp.
Music makes you happy
Music has the potential to relieve stress and put you in a great mood. When you hear a song you like, your brain releases dopamine, which looks after the reward and pleasure centres of the brain. It also suppresses cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress.
It doesn’t seem to matter what sort of music you listen to. The key is to choose songs you like, even if they’re essentially sad (which is good news for Morrissey fans).
If you really want to boost your mood, playing a musical instrument can improve your self esteem and confidence. People who play instruments are cool. Everyone knows this. It’s a skill that other people admire and when your achievements impress others, you’ll feel great!
Music makes exercise easier
Exercise is hard. In fact, it can be so challenging that many people simply give up before they have a chance to notice any real benefit. If this situation sounds all too familiar, music could provide the solution.
A 2016 study from McMaster University in Canada allowed healthy 20-somethings to choose their own playlist before a session of interval training on an exercise bike. They also had a second set of participants perform the same workout without any music.
The researchers discovered that the people who had their favourite tunes on in the background enjoyed the workout more. The same group also reported that they were more likely to make the workout a habit than those who pedalled in silence.
So, we’ve established that music can encourage you to exercise, but will it make you perform any better? It turns out the answer is yes. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that athletes performed better if they listened to music that motivated them.
Or, to put it another way…
Music can take your pain away
This might sound a bit dramatic, but it’s true! Most of us are familiar with the idea that music can help you deal with various different emotions, including sadness and anger. What you might not know is that music can also tackle physical pain.
Music affects the areas of your brain that process pain and changes the way our bodies react to it. It disrupts your brain’s thought pattern, which in turn alters your response to stress. For example, one study showed that playing music to people after they’d had surgery reduced their anxiety so well that they actually needed less morphine than other patients to manage their pain.
Calming music slows your heart rate and relaxes your muscles, relieving the tension that can cause aches and pains. Music therapy has even provided effective pain relief for people with fibromyalgia.
Music improves your hearing
We’ve all heard people talk about having ‘an ear for music’. Well, those lucky enough to have this gift may notice that they can pick up on things that others can’t.
Playing a musical instrument improves your hearing to such an extent that some people find it easier to identify individual sounds in a noisy environment, such as a crowded room. For the rest of us, these noises may all just blend into one.
The musically talented are also more sensitive to factors like tone of voice. This may help them work out people’s emotions more easily - for example, they’re likely to be better at detecting a hint of sadness or disappointment in someone’s voice.
Of course, you can have too much of a good thing. Regularly listening to loud music can actually damage your hearing and lead to conditions such as tinnitus, so be careful and invest in a good set of earplugs.
Music will help you make good choices
Life is all about decisions. It turns out that music can help you make better ones.
Researchers in Holland found that music had a calming influence on drivers, making them less likely to make a potentially rash decision (such as going through the lights on amber) or get angry.
Their results even showed that switching to a more soothing song in stressful situations, such as a traffic jam, had the ability to make a driver more mellow. Drivers who listened to faster, louder music were more likely to get agitated.
Another study showed that playing gentle music in the background caused people to eat more slowly during a meal. Your brain takes around 20 minutes to catch up with your stomach, which means that shovelling your food down often means you eat more than you need and end up with calories you can’t burn off.
By reducing your eating pace, you’re less likely to over-face yourself, so music even has the potential to help you lose weight!
Now for the encore
As you can see, music is more powerful than you might think. Of course, there’ll be times when it takes more than music to deal with a health issue you’re having and you can always rely on our doctors to provide the help you need.
Whether you’re looking for help with a mental health issue, struggling to lose weight or dealing with hearing loss that affects your ability to enjoy your favourite songs, you can download our app today and speak to an experienced GP in minutes.