Pictured: US singer-songwriter and stadium sellout sensation Taylor Swift

Music does wonders for your brain. Here’s how it works

As artists like Taylor Swift, Stormzy and Fred Again grace our shores, psychologist and Flow State Space founder Rashida Dungarwalla reflects on one of her core passions: the psychology of music.

With the recent frenzy that’s been whipped up in Australia due to some amazing artists we have landed on our shores of late, I’ve been thinking – what is it that makes music so incredible for our brains? 

Music is powerful. Music is universal. Its impact crosses all known human cultures. We use it to feel, connect, celebrate, grieve, reminisce, express, identify, storytell and move. 

Music activates so many different parts of our brain and the research on how it can impact and manipulate our moods all the way to our aging process is pretty outstanding. Music allows for a full brain workout. 

Image: Stormzy.

Our limbic system, which is made up of various brain structures responsible for things such as our emotion processing, behaviour regulation, motivation and memory, is just one of the zones in which we process music.

We will experience a release of the neurotransmitters dopamine (linked to pleasure, motivation and satisfaction) serotonin (reward, regulation of emotion) and a decrease in cortisol (stress hormone) when listening to and even creating music.

Music processing has been seen to utilise almost every part of our brain. From when we first hear a beat and it activates the auditory cortex to the emotional processing that comes afterwards. This is important due to the influence it has on our overall health throughout our lives. It can be seen as a tool to continue to use in support of both our psychological and physical health. 

Music is important in our understanding of the self as well as the collective. 

I have distinct memories of hearing some of my favourite songs for the first time. I can clearly envision where I was, who I was with, what I was wearing, and most importantly the way the music made me feel. All of this helps us create an understanding of who we are … what we like, what’s important to us and then causing us to make space to reflect on why. Whether it’s the lyrics or the composition of the melody, music can often speak to a part of us that was desiring to be seen. 

In celebration of Fred Again and the recent frenzy he has whipped up both IRL and on social media, and coming from a day 1 number one fan, I still remember when I heard his song “Angie (I’ve been lost)” a remix of Australia’s Angie McMahons song “lost” for the first time. The lyrics were like a fire starter to my heart and body. With lyrics “I’ve been lost for a while... But I'm really tryin’...” I almost immediately started crying. I had a surge of emotion. I felt seen to all of the times I myself had felt lost and tried hard to make sense of the experience. I thought of clients who describe feeling lost and working so hard in therapy to make sense of their experiences. It started a deep dive into his entire catalog and evidence of all of the power music has over us.  

Considering we are in a loneliness epidemic, music is a means to making us feel connected to something larger, often giving meaning to our experiences.

We can resonate with something within the song, whether it’s lyrics or the genre and that can provide a level of reassurance to the way we may be feeling or in knowing someone else is also feeling this way. Since the beginning of time music has a way of creating bonds. Bonds between parent and child, romantic partners, friends and within all relationship dynamics.

— Maya Angelou 

In terms of the science, music can cause us to lean further into a mood state or on the flip side help transition us out of a certain mood state. People often create playlists in accordance with their mood or to set the tone of an environment. I have set playlists to help support me in regulating my emotions, reminiscing on life experiences, motivating me for future events and bringing an added dimension to my existing life. 

Music is a form of catharsis and a practice of mindfulness in motion. A practice I often give clients is to listen to an album in full, often as the artist had intended their body of work to be listened to, and see what connections are made between songs, what is the story the music is conveying?

Music has both positive and negative impacts on our ability to perform and retain information. In a 2022 study into music’s impact on conditions such as Alzheimer’s, researchers Anna Maria Matziorinis and Stefan Koelsch found that “musical memory is partially spared in patients with Alzheimers, despite severe deficits in episodic (and partly semantic) memory. Alzheimer's patients can learn new songs, encode novel verbal information, and react emotionally to music. These effects of music have encouraged the use and development of music therapy for Alzheimer's management. Music interventions might be a promising means to delay and decelerate the neurodegeneration in individuals at risk for Alzheimer’s, such as individuals with genetic risk or subjective cognitive decline.”

— Elton John

Elton John is right. Music, and specifically singing, has been shown to have a significant positive impact on our immune system. Research has indicated that people who sing are happier and more emotionally and physically healthy. Humming can also initiate calm, activating our rest and digest or parasympathetic nervous system response.

Music is often incorporated into every area of our lives. Whether we are hearing it in the background at work, using it to mark celebrations and milestones, hearing it on our devices, being moved by it when watching a performance or using it to connect with someone or soothe ourselves. It is one of the greatest joys of life. 

“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.” 

– Kahlil Gibran