Rewards of music available to musicians and non-musicians alike

Mikaela Krimm

Music is not solely for musicians, or the musically aware or even the musically inclined. It is worth exploring the idea that people did not create music but simply manipulated it. Music could very well be a stand-alone substance that exists free from and regardless of human involvement, and in all our instrumental explorations—our tonal modulations, studies of chord progressions and syncopated rhythms—we barely scratch the surface.

Consider famous performers, the Yo-Yo Mas and Miles Davises who, growing up, spent upwards of six hours a day rehearsing their instruments in an effort to achieve the perfect sound. Despite their now-assumed mastery, artists such as these continue to practice, day-in and day-out. If music was a man-made creation, there should be no need for this sort of relentless effort—we would have a set pattern of steps required to attain a predetermined end result. But instead, the end result has no definitive limitation—great artists continue to push the boundaries of perfection as far as they can. 

Why would this relentless effort exist? Only if music were to be thought of as a free-forming material that floats around us, within us, heedless of physical boundaries and far beyond the realm of our comprehensions. The most that we, as firmly corporeal beings, can hope to do is to harness it and mold it into something recognizable by our human ears. 

So what draws humanity to music? People have been toying around with sound for thousands of years, dating back to the agricultural revolution. Unlike other instinctual activities of the time period—sex for reproduction, food for energy, stonework for weapons for the acquisition of this food—music does not seem to have been critical for human survival. Yet music produces a rush of dopamine similar to that invoked by sex and food. A prominent scientist of the 1950s, Leonard Meyer, theorized that music is based on patterns, and as we listen we subconsciously prepare for the next step in the pattern—when we correctly assume the approaching change, a small amount of dopamine is released as a reward. 

It’s unsure why our bodies needed to experience the effects of this chemical—which is often used in establishing survivalist instincts—when music wasn’t needed to stay alive. Yet another researcher at Ohio State recently proposed that practice in the detection of patterns for which music-listening provides would have been crucial in making logical decisions in the vicious ancient world. The sound of a bush rustling and the low growl of some wild beast would indicate to primitive man that what follows would probably be the appearance of something from which they should flee. But where does this pragmatic application fit in with music as it is almost unanimously used today, as a medium for creative expression? 

Ancient civilizations did not cognitively use music as a training exercise—it was explored in rituals and incorporated into early religions. A desire for experimentation with sound looks to have been almost innate, and anyone who’s read the “Bakkhai” or seen “Footloose” can identify this need for creative release. But what is so beautiful about creativity is that the possibilities for methods of its realization are almost infinite. By reaching out into the world of the intangible and molding the chunk of music they had just grasped, humans were and are able to individualize the expression of their emotions and give multiple insights into the existence of this “other.” 

Yet the connection of music to human emotions is nuanced. It has been determined that while listening to music, the brain is able to experience two types of emotional states—perceived and actual. In this manner, we can truly enjoy a sad song, since we perceive its melancholy yet simultaneously derive pleasure from the melody. 

So then, what makes some music pleasing to certain ears and not to others? Based on the previous findings, clearly, the inclination to listen to certain songs is not based solely on current or desired emotional state. Some pop listeners will recoil at the gritty sound of guitars and hi-hats, while rock fans find comfort in this genre. If music is just a necessary pathway for the expression of human emotionality, what draws individuals to prefer one genre over another? 

According to a study done by researchers at Hariot-Wyatt University, there is enough evidence to support the claim that preferred musical genre is correlated to personality type. Those who like pop music tend to score high in the categories of self-esteem, sociability, gentleness and work ethic, while listeners of indie are far more creative and at ease, but lack the gentleness and self-esteem. Avid fans of rap are well-rounded overall, but extremely outgoing with very high self esteem, fans of Jazz are the same, with the added bonus of being creative and at-ease.   

Researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden recently began arguing for the existence of an “intermediate analysis layer” wherein basic musical concepts are detected naturally by the human ear, regardless of experience. Such a thing would explain how both trained musicians and the average person are equally capable of enjoying a song. These researchers conducted studies using nine categories—speed, modality, rhythmic clarity, rhythmic complexity, overall pitch, dynamics, articulation, harmonic complexity and brightness—in order to pinpoint which traits are generally preferred by the human ear, musician or otherwise. They say that the results of their investigation demonstrated a clear point—certain traits make songs more appealing, and knowledge of these traits can be a huge advantage for the music industry as producers try to predict consumer preference.  

This study proves that everyone can reap the rewards of music equally. So what are some of these benefits?

 Exercising to music is very common, and recent studies have proven that besides helping to divert our attention from physical discomforts, music somehow assists us in using our energy more efficiently. A study in 2012 showed that cyclists who listened to music required seven percent less oxygen to do the same work as those who were exercising in silence.   

Heekyeong Park, an assistant professor of psychology at University of Texas’ Arlington College of Science, recently conducted a study, which looked into the effect of musical training on long-term memory. It has been proven through previous investigations that musically trained individuals display the ability to process linguistic materials a split second faster than their less educated counterparts, and that musical training can improve short-term memory. Park’s investigation, however, went deeper. His studies revealed that musicians were more adept at reading and processing visual cues—although there was no difference between the groups when it came to verbal ones. Park believes this discrepancy has to do with the fact that musicians spend a great deal of time processing pictorial cues in their work with musical scores. 

This research is continuing. But there is a score of other health benefits to be gleaned through listening and training with music. Many of these are related to physical activity—music can improve endurance, increase pain tolerance, speed workout recoveries and heighten motivation. It has also been proven to reduce stress, improve quality of sleep, elevate mood, enhance blood vessel function and relieve symptoms of depression. 

Yet unlike many of the things in our lives that are “good for us,” most people don’t have an issue with listening to music. It is, again, such a natural inclination, and not enough research is being devoted to this mysterious substance, whose impressive array of ameliorative qualities has no as-yet-of-defined source. Which brings us right back to the initial concept: music itself did not come from anywhere—it has always been here. And our ability to drench ourselves in it, to shape it and share it, to accept its presence and to actively seek out the truth behind its nature, is an effort aimed only at our own benefit. Like the great musicians who can do nothing but push harder against the boundaries of music’s form, we too should continue to strive towards full understanding of a thing that surrounds us every day—always humming in the air, always at the edge of our sensory spectrum, ready for us to call it into being.