It’s 2:55 on a Monday, and, as usual, I’m standing in the hallway at the elementary school, waiting for the 3:00 bell to ring and the children to come pouring out of their classrooms. Another mom stops to chat with me, and says, with no preamble, “Okay, what would you say are the top three benefits to studying music?” The subtext here is clearly: Is all this effort worthwhile?, a thought that is common to parents of young children studying music, and one I'm definitely familiar with. Because it really is a lot of work for parents to encourage, motivate, schedule and nag their children to practice every day.
As I said last week, I really feel the number one reason to study music is for the joy of it, but it’s clear that not every second of practicing will bring you joy. In fact, many of the minutes of practicing are just hard work, and not pleasurable at all, especially for young children who don’t really see that there is a worthwhile goal far down the road from all this effort. One of the jobs of the teacher and parent, of course, is to try to bring the goals closer and give children some satisfaction from small accomplishments.
Music Improves Mood
But it made me think: Is there any real scientific evidence to show that music makes you happy? Well, happiness is kind of difficult to measure scientifically, isn’t it? There are some standard questionnaires that can be given to people to assess mood, and, using these, it has been shown that singing (either in a choir or individually) improves people’s mood. In addition, just listening to music can improve your mood, and has been shown to activate the pleasure centres of the brain. Music therapy has been shown to improve mood in patients with dementia, stroke, cancer, traumatic brain injury, and depression. So clearly, yes: music makes people happy.
Physiological Effects of Music
There is also a body of research showing that music (either making it or listening to it) can cause physiological changes in our bodies, such as decreasing stress levels, causing our blood vessels to dilate, boosting our immune response, and acting to reduce our pain perception. The majority of this research has been performed simply by having people listen to joyful or relaxing music, and doing before-and-after measurements of things like saliva cortisol levels (to measure stress), or saliva immunoglobulin levels (to measure immune response).
The Autonomic Nervous System
How does music entering our ears manage to affect our body? It kind of sounds like hippie mumbo-jumbo, but there is a good anatomical explanation. A lot of our bodily functions are looked after by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is made up of nerves that talk to our internal organs -- heart, lungs, glands, blood vessels, etc. The main role of the ANS is keep all our bodily functions chugging along at a relatively even keel, so that if, for example, our heart rate starts getting too fast, the ANS will try to slow it back down to the right speed. But what sets what the “right speed” is? That’s the job of the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that is the master control centre for the ANS. It uses input from the body and from the other parts of the brain to decide exactly what all our organs should be doing. The hypothalamus has direct connections with the emotional parts of our brains, so if we’re happy, that affects how our body functions.
Does musical training make you happier?
If all these benefits can be had simply by listening to music, is there extra benefit to performing the music? Is all this musical training worth it? I certainly think so, but what does the research say? I was surprised to find very little research on whether musical training increases overall happiness, but as I mentioned, happiness is something that’s tricky to study.
Here’s what I did find: a recent study conducted in Thailand showed that students with musical training had much lower levels of stress hormones right before a stressful math exam than students without musical training. The researchers concluded that musicians were more emotionally stable.
Another study compared professional vs. amateur musicians and investigated whether they reported having “peak experiences”, defined as “experiences of ego transcendence, glimpses of higher consciousness lying beyond ordinary daily experience”. The study found that professional musicians were more likely than amateurs to report having these transcendent experiences, and that performing music caused these moments, in both professionals and amateurs. I can certainly relate, and I'd be curious to know how non-musicians would compare with these two groups of musicians.
Despite the lack of research, I would argue that people with musical training are more likely to listen to music and more likely to be made happy by listening to music. Simply put, being a musician brings more music into your life. And the satisfaction of making music yourself cannot be denied. I keep getting sidetracked to the piano today because all this talk of how enjoyable music is makes me just want to go and play music.
And the second and third of the top three benefits of music training? I would say they are the improvements to executive function and to verbal skills, which I really will get around to blogging about one of these days.
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