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Your Mind On Music

Music and the brain

Music is everywhere, it is integral to every culture on the planet and every one of them, including the most isolated tribal groups, has some form of music.

Music occurred long before recorded history, so we don’t know where exactly music came from. The origin most likely stems from naturally occurring sounds and rhythms. What we do know is that music has been with mankind from the very beginning, as it is highly probable that the human voice was the first musical instrument with its ability to make a wide range of sounds from singing, humming and whistling to clicking, coughing and yawning.

Humans are also uniquely able to both produce and enjoy music, as few other animals can do so. Besides from mosquitoes that can harmonize their wing beats; a California sea lion that can bob its head to “Boogie Wonderland”; a chimp in Japan that spontaneously played a keyboard in time with a simple beat and a few captive bonobo apes that played along briefly to a beat on a drum, scientists haven’t had much luck finding another species on our planet that has the same relationship with music.

But why did music become such a fundamental constituent of human life?

Daniel Levitin, a psychologist who studies neuroscience and music at McGill University argues that evolutionary-speaking, music led to social bonding and improved fitness. Because music is such a unifying force, it assisted in building social cohesion between individuals who then stood a greater chance of survival by being part of a unified group, as opposed to their more solitary, musically un-gifted counterparts.

This view is shared by Robin Dunbar, Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford, who adds that music’s capacity to create and strengthen social bonds amongst interacting group members stems from the release of endorphins during exertive rhythmic activities. Endorphins are those wonderful little chemicals that allow us to control pain and make us feel great. They are also released by our brain during other social engagements, like laughing or grooming, but it’s only during musical interaction when this release happens simultaneously across large groups.

Other researchers believe that music was also important to human evolution by aiding the memorization of knowledge or history, thereby enabling information to be passed down from one generation to the next. In addition, it is also thought to be an essential building block for language, assisting in the playful learning of language for young infants.

Leonid Perlovsky, a physics and cognition researcher, believes that “music is an evolutionary adaptation, one that helps us navigate a world rife with contradictions”. His research set out to prove that music exists because it can help us overcome cognitive dissonance, the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially with regards to behavioural decisions and attitude change. For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition), they are in a state of cognitive dissonance. This might explain why so many people smoke in social settings where loud music is playing… not only do they think that they’re cool, but the music assists in easing their internal conflict.

So why does music have such powerful effects on our mind (and body)?

We don’t hear music, we experience it, fully.

When researchers measure the brain activity of people while listening to music using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), music is shown to activate brain regions that are also involved in movement, planning, attention, and memory. There is no single musical center in the brain, but rather 20 to 30 networks spread throughout every region that analyze different components of music, from pitch to melody. Amazingly, music occupies more areas of our brain than language does.

Our brains also love repetition, in fact they’re pretty much addicted to it. The human brain has evolved to recognize patterns, perhaps more than any other single function. Our brain is fairly weak at processing logic, remembering facts, and making complex calculations, but pattern recognition is a deep core capability. As we listen to music our brains try to successfully predict what will happen next, and when the rhythmic pattern of a beat is identified it invariably results in the tapping of toes, nodding of heads or breaking into dance.

Even though music can be unifying, and its effects are quite similar on everyone’s brains, people still respond differently to different types of music based on their own individual preferences. This is where emotions play a key role in creating our own intimate and uniquely personal experience of music.

Research has shown that a listeners' music preference has the greatest impact on brain connectivity, and not the type of music they listen to. This is especially true for the default mode network, the brain circuit known to be involved in internally focused thought, empathy and self-awareness. Listening to your favourite song also actively alters the connectivity between auditory brain areas and a region responsible for memory and social emotion consolidation. Much like your sense of smell, music is able to elicit memories of previous experiences with crystal clarity and induce feelings of nostalgia. A simple melody can instantly transport you to a different time and place.

Music actively changes your brain

The effects of music are far reaching. Music has been shown to benefit overall well-being, help regulate emotions, and create happiness and relaxation in everyday life by reducing stress, lessening anxiety, improving memory and cognition, easing pain and providing comfort. The extensive research conducted by Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist, over the course of his life has shown that music also has the ability to help people cope with debilitating conditions. It has enabled Tourette's syndrome patients to bypass their tics; those with Parkinson's disease to sing and dance; stroke sufferers to retrieve words and even help patients with extreme amnesia remember how to sing or play complex pieces of music.

If you play a musical instrument, the benefits of music can be even more profound. Studies of structural brain plasticity in the developing brain have shown that instrumental music training can actively change our brains wiring and improve both cognitive, motor and auditory skills. And we are only beginning to understand music’s true potential as an interactive treatment or intervention for neurological and developmental disorders, as well as those associated with normal aging.

So what does this all mean for marketers?

Music matters.

Be it a radio jingle, TV soundtrack, on-hold dial tone or retail store playlist – the music you associate with your brand can have a deep and meaningful impact on your customer. It can help them remember your products features and benefits, build positive brand associations, provide unique brand experiences and entrench emotional connections.

Music can no longer be an afterthought, left to the very end of the creative development process. Not only does it need to be integrated into every aspect of the marketing mix for your next advertising campaign, but music should be integral to your marketing strategy as a whole.

Want to be a marketing maestro? We can help.


Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. "Music has powerful (and visible) effects on the brain." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 April 2017

Journal Reference:

R. W. Wilkins, D. A. Hodges, P. J. Laurienti, M. Steen, J. H. Burdette.

Scientific Reports, 2014; 4: 6130 DOI: 10.1038/srep06130

Volume1169, Issue1

July 2009

Pages 182-186

A Longitudinal Study

Krista L. Hyde

Jason Lerch

Andrea Norton

Marie Forgeard

Ellen Winner

Alan C. Evans

Gottfried Schlaug

Music Making as a Tool for Promoting Brain Plasticity across the Life Span

Catherine Y. Wan, Gottfried Schlaug

First Published October 1, 2010


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