Why does the brain respond to music the way it does and what is it that elicits such strong emotions. Although music has a prescribed cultural impact and people respond differently to different types of music (lets face it, fans of Heavy Metal aren’t usually keen on jazz), ultimately music is a part of the universal human experience
Music impacts us in a very immediate emotional level, we don’t need to think about it in the same way as many other art forms — it just grabs us — There are myriad of theories as to why this is. One such idea is that music evolved as a survival strategy, fostering social cohesion and enhancing emotional communication. An infant scream elicits a very different feeling in the listener to an infant babbling, which is doubtless in order to help the mother respond quickly if her child is in need or danger. —
This perhaps can provide a glimpse into the connection between the emotionality of language and music. Recent evidence suggests this effect could be tied to the frequency dynamics of happy and sad speech. I always found it fascinating that studies have shown that people from different cultures all round the world respond to the minor key as being sad and the major key as being happy despite having completely different musical cultures.
So why does music help us study? Again the survival instinct plays a role here. We have two forms of attention systems, the conscious and unconscious. We consciously direct our focus to things we are immediately interested in or working on, meanwhile our unconscious is constantly scanning the environment for sounds of threat.
The unconscious attention responds far quicker than the conscious, and directly elicits emotions to these responses meaning they can pull you away from your conscious attention. This is an effective survival instinct perfect for hunting in the rain forest but not so useful when you are trying to concentrate on something rather monotonous, like revising. We are having to force our attention on those revision notes making us even more susceptible to distractions!! Background noise can then help to mask intrusive noises that could elicit your unconscious attention.
There are studies that show that pink noise can be effective at helping focus and has been used, with mixed results, to improve productivity in the workplace. As a parent, it is very apparent my baby sleeps better when the blow heater is whirring. Despite this, evidence that the use of pink noise to improve productivity is far from conclusive.
Music, on the other hand is widely accepted as a very effectiove background noise to improve focus. Certain types of music seem more affective than others. Thrash metal or atonal serial avant grade music are probably less affective than gentle classical. This is because the background music needs to be just that. Enough that it keeps those background noises that get the attention of our unconscious masked but subtle enough that it does not distract our conscious attention.
In addition to masking background sounds, music triggers our reward centres, boosting our seratonin levels associated with focus and creativity. Also music can have an entrainment effect on our brainwaves, encouraging our electrical brain activity to synchronise, balancing the left and right hemispheres of the brain — enhancing problem solving skills and creativity. This is why music can be a powerful aid to meditation, enhancing the alpha, beta, theta and delta wave states assocated with different levels of brain attention.
As a composer, I create music in a very intuitive way, following my emotions and often using long improvisations as entire compositions letting the sound world completely immerse me — perhaps inducing the listener into a similar meditative state! If you are interested check out my new album AcoustOMA maybe give it a go!!