Apply     Visit     Give     |     Alumni     Parents     Offices     TCNJ Today

The Science Behind Music

By Mylin Batipps

It’s no secret that everybody loves listening to music. From nodding our heads in the car while driving to stuffing our ears with headphones while exercising, we make music an essential part of our everyday lives, sometimes unknowingly. But why does music have such universal appeal? If we look at it from a scientific viewpoint, we’ll find valuable answers.

It turns out that music has such a powerful psychological impact on human beings. Not only is music a luxury, but it is also a necessity. In fact, research shows we should probably listen to more music than we actually do. “Music is exercise to the brain,” says Teresa Nakra, associate professor of music at The College of New Jersey. “It engages your brain in different levels of thinking.”

We may think that we are simply just listening to a song, but there’s much more to it than that. We are actually dissecting the songs that we listen to. Our brain is trying to follow the downbeats and upbeats of the drums, all while recognizing the different octaves and notes of the horns and the voice. “Music forces us to use multiple levels of thinking simultaneously,” Nakra explains.

Research shows that the brain produces brainwaves from music with a strong and defining beat, and those brainwaves determine our level of concentration and alertness, according to an article in the psychological health magazine Complete WellbeingThe article also notes that listening to music increases levels of optimism and pleasure.

Robert Young McMahan, music theory professor at the College, says people listen to music to help them feel good in whatever situation they are in and that different types of music call for different situations. “If you go to a grocery store, you hear music played in the background that usually has popular standards,” McMahan says. “But, if you go to the Penn Station in New York, you usually hear classical music. There is a reason that they are playing those specific kinds of music.”

Research has also shown that listening to classical music slows down your heart and breathing rate, which is why we listen to classical music while relaxing. Genres such as rock and pop help clear our minds when in the middle of stressful and complex activities, which is why we listen to those types of music when we are working out in the gym.

What exactly, though, causes us to react in these different ways when we are listening to different types of music? Several media outlets, such as CNN and Discovery News, mention that researchers find that listening to music causes the release of dopamine, the brain’s way of responding to pleasurable activity, such as eating good-tasting food or watching our favorite television shows.

It is important to note, says McMahan, that while our brain is responding to and analyzing the music that we listen to, we ourselves are not analyzing it. Music serves as a background to help us focus on activity, but it does not serve as a focus itself. “We certainly use music in that kind of utilitarian way as a secondary thing to affect our moods, rather than sitting down, concentrating on and listening to it,” he says.

Take studying or doing schoolwork, for example. McMahan states that the best students are the ones who do not need music and can focus on their schoolwork without the need to listen to it; however, there are many students who cannot concentrate on their work without it. An article in The New York Times in the summer of 2012 explains this theory that our minds tend to wander while trying to focus on schoolwork in a quiet environment. However, listening to music, as the article explains, allows our minds to come “back to the present moment” and regain our focus. Listening to music, in this case, serves as the background or environment for these students and allows them to concentrate on their work.

Besides being a background or a mood enhancer, music can also be a person’s companion. According to McMahan, music can be our friend, especially during times of loneliness. He says studying can often be a lonely experience, and so students listen to music while doing so because they like the companionship of something that sounds live in the room with them. “I think a lot of people wouldn’t want to admit that,” McMahan says.