The power of music

Mary Jo Dowsett
Images by Kyla Little

Ah music – the universal language that strengthens ties and quite literally brings the world together. It has been proven to improve moods and lower levels of cortisol in your body, but just how powerful can music really be?

Friedrich Nietzsche once famously said that ‘without music, life would be a mistake’. It’s a bold statement, but I can’t help but somewhat agree. For many of us, music is the one constant in our lives that we can always rely on. It has seen you through every bad break-up, every euphoric moment, and has likely been your shower buddy when no one else was. Not to mention that thanks to the recent rise in streaming services and reliable internet connection, we really can have our very own soundtrack to our lives. But there are far greater benefits to music than what meets eye.

Although music has always been labelled ‘universal’, it wasn’t until last year that this was officially confirmed after a 2019 Harvard University study found that music possesses unique ‘codes and patterns’ which can be globally understood. The emotional purpose of a song can therefore be clearly identified regardless of cultural background – a unifying discovery that literally connects every corner of the world. With music being so deeply embedded within the DNA of every society, our attraction and reaction to it can have endless benefits.

In Australia today, it is estimated that just under five million of us are currently suffering from some form of stress. With stress being the main contributor to around 60 percent of illnesses, this statistic is pretty alarming. But don’t stress (further) – there’s good news if you’re a lover of music and enjoy spending some alone time with a Spotify calm playlist. Over the years, countless studies have confirmed that listening to relaxing music can significantly lower our cortisol levels, helping relieve chronic stress and anxiety (which in turn improves our sleep). Although many of us are already aware of the calming benefits of music, not many of us actually take the time to listen. This is a super easy thing to implement into your daily life and the therapeutic benefits are 100 percent worth it.

Not only can music improve our stress levels; it can also be used as a reliable mood booster (cue blasting ‘Good as Hell’ by Lizzo at 8am). A Canadian study conducted by McGill University specifically found that dopamine levels can increase up to nine percent when listening to music you love. Typically, dopamine (known as the ‘feel-good’ neurochemical) is only released when we meet our needs of survival; such as sleeping, eating and reproducing. However, these findings revealed that despite music failing to be a requirement of survival, it has managed to trigger the same evolutionary ‘reward’ response. While we don’t technically need music to survive, it’s pretty clear we need it to stay sane.

In addition to relieving stress and boosting your mood, listening to music has also been proven to significantly improve memory in cognitively impaired patients. A 2014 study revealed that listening to music enhances the mood, episodic memory and orientation of patients suffering from dementia. Listening to familiar music was also found to stimulate physical responses such as dancing and smiling, while regular singing sessions also proved to be beneficial in improving patient’s ability to remember names of children and friends.

We have all experienced the power of music when it comes to memory. It usually happens to me at the grocery store when a song comes on that I used to obsessively repeat in high school. Before I even know what’s going on, I’ve been transported back to my childhood room in the middle of the cereal aisle. The music ensures I re-live every emotion I felt during that time of my life and the nostalgia hits hard. Music has the ability to completely freeze a moment in time and is undoubtedly the closest we will ever get to experiencing time travel.

It’s all thanks to ‘implicit memory’ that music has this impressive ability to take you straight back to a specific time, place or emotion (whether you want to or not). Unlike ‘explicit memory’ which is a deliberate attempt to remember, implicit memory involves unconscious recollection – it is reactive, involuntary and draws on past experiences. Luckily, implicit memory occupies a separate part of the brain which typically remains undamaged in those suffering from a memory disorder such as alzheimer’s. Music is therefore a great tool in igniting memory for not only you and me, but for those coping with a memory disorder.

Many of us engage with music on a daily basis but are quite oblivious to the benefits it offers. Music is far more than simply ‘background noise’, it has proven to ease anxiety and stress, activate long-lost memory and ultimately help create an escape from our everyday lives. Music sees us through some of our darkest times and is still there to celebrate with us when we reach the other side. It is the most unifying tool the world possesses and its healing power is often underestimated.

So if you only take one thing away from this article, let it be to keep blasting your favourite playlist each morning. Play it as loud as you want and make sure you sing along, and if anyone tries to stop you (most likely an annoyed roommate), tell them it’s for their own good.  The power of music is undeniable and can have profound effects on not only you and me, but the entire world. As Bono once said, ‘music can change the world because it can change people’.


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