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  • Chris Anderson

The Effect Of Music On The Human Mind

For as long as there's been human life, there's been music in one form or another, but as time has gone on it's become more developed, more formed, more inventive. Used to celebrate, commiserate, protest, and send code (yes really), the purpose of music has always been hugely varied. As interest in the human mind has taken a more or less front row seat in research, so has the impact of music on said mind. The effect of music on the mind is profound and can be seen in several ways. Here are some of them:

Emotional Response: Music has the ability to evoke strong emotions in people. Certain songs or types of music can make people feel happy, sad, or nostalgic, and these emotional responses can be very powerful. The emotional response to music is thought to be mediated by the limbic system, which includes the amygdala, hippocampus, and other structures involved in emotion processing.

Research has shown that certain types of music, such as classical music or music with a slow tempo, can have a calming effect on the mind and body, while other types of music, such as heavy metal or aggressive rap, can increase feelings of anger or anxiety. But of course there are pop songs that will calm you and classical music that will make you anxious. To take this even further, every piece of music will affect its listener in a different way.

Memory: Music has a powerful ability to trigger memories, especially those associated with specific events or time periods. This is because the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory formation and retrieval, is also activated when we listen to music. Studies have shown that music can help people with Alzheimer's disease recall memories and improve their mood.

Whenever I have performed in care homes for the elderly I have witnessed first hand the impact the music has. I will remember one occasion vividly, I was doing a storytelling thing whereby I'd tell a story interspersed with songs that the audience to could sing along to. The idea being it would move the story along or enhance the emotions I'd just talked about.

On one occasion I'd finished the story and the warden, who had been sat there, asked if I'd mind staying a bit longer. I agreed and so I asked them if they had any requests. I got a variety of responses which I managed to fulfil. Then, I asked for another one and a gentleman who was sat to my right said something, there was an audible gasp from nearly everyone in the room. It turns out he'd moved in six weeks ago and hadn't said a word to anyone.

Through the power of music I'd somehow been able to tap into a part of him that touched him enough for him to communicate. I went on my way but knew I was going to be going back a few months later. When I turned up, the gentleman was there and he actually made eye contact with me, smiled and sat there with anticipation. The warden came up to me and told me that since my last visit, while he's not been a chatterbox, he had become a little more engaged with what was going on. My heart was filled with joy and I thanked the Universe for allowing to use the gift of music in such a powerful way.

Attention: Music can influence our attention and focus. Some studies have shown that music can improve cognitive performance and increase focus and attention in certain situations, such as during studying or while performing repetitive tasks. However, other research has found that music can be a distraction and interfere with concentration, especially if it's loud or if the lyrics are meaningful.

When I was younger I worked in a box factory (I needed the money!) and the repetitive task of gluing bits of box together was so tedious. Luckily the radio was on but when I found I was allowed to bring a personal stereo my productivity went through the roof as I was able to put on some fast-paced, heavy-bass dance music to work in rhythm.

Whenever I'm writing be it blog, script, story, or letter I like to have gentle classical music in the background. Usually Mozart, but sometimes just piano music. The thing is, I don't want distractions of lyrics (I'm notorious for singing along) so it'll always be instrumental. Sometimes, a piece I really like will come on so I'll take a little break and enjoy it. When I'm working on music, I can't listen to music as it's too distracting (plus there's a risk I'll copy what I'm hearing). If I need some background noise to fill in the silence I'll use the sound of waves or rain, or any other form of white noise.

Physical Response: Music can have a physical effect on the body. For example, fast-paced music can increase heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure, while slower music can have a calming effect and lower heart rate and blood pressure. This physical response to music is thought to be due to the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which can affect mood and arousal.

Going for a long walk or hike I'll pop my earbuds in and choose a playlist of good, upbeat, moderately fast songs to listen to. This helps me keep a decent pace and I nearly always end up walking in time with the music. The danger here though is when you end up listening to “Come On Eileen” by Dexy's Midnight Runners. The song starts off at a reasonable pace and I enjoy walking in time with the song. However, about half way through the song goes into half-speed, gradually speeding up as it goes along climaxing with a ridiculously fast section. Well...I nearly had a heart-attack! (If you want to skip to the section I'm describing go to 2:27).

Creativity: Music can enhance creativity and improve problem-solving skills. Studies have shown that listening to music can activate the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning, decision-making, and creativity. Some research has also found that people who play musical instruments have higher levels of creativity than non-musicians.

When I'm doing creative writing very often I'll choose a piece of music that will help set that scene. For example, I was writing a murder mystery set in the 20's so I put on some Charleston. When I'm writing about anger it'll be something like Dies Irae by Verdi. When I'm trying to create a bucolic mood it'll be Beethoven's 6th Symphony (especially the first movement, but the symphony does create so many moods).

Music has a complex and multifaceted effect on the human mind, influencing emotions, memory, attention, physical response, and creativity. The specific effects of music depend on the type of music, individual preferences, and the context in which it's listened to. In fact The Simpsons did an episode where the soundtrack had been chosen to give a sinister feel to a story (on a news item within the show), which ended up with people turning against the person in the story...all because of the music.

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