Anyone who knows me knows that I love music. I listen to it when I go for walks, when I write, when I'm home with the kids and especially when I'm working out. If a hip hop or dance song comes on, I swear my body begins to move. (Secretly, I've always wanted to be a back-up dancer for Beyonce, Rihanna, Jlo. Yes, a girl can dream!) Listening to music while working out is a MUST for me. There are times when it even makes me forget how winded I feel. Why is that? Is there an actual physiological effect taking place when you listen to music? Do all people react the same? Are there some activities that benefit more when you listen to music? Can different music elicit different reactions? And what of this debate on digital vs. analog music? Read on if you want to know more.
Does listening to music have a physiological effect?
It most certainly does. Studies have shown that music can activate the body's sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your body going into a fight, flight or freeze mode. It gets your body ready for action. Your heart rate will increase, your airways will open, your muscles get primed for movement. The use of music before and during physical activity can actually make a big difference. When music is used before the athletic activity, it can improve performance, increase alertness, and even facilitate positive visualization. When music is used during physical activity, it has ergogenic (work-enhancing) and psychological effects. It can increase work capacity, improve energy efficiency, and influence your mood. Music can also act as a natural painkiller by lessening your perception or even delaying fatigue. (This may explain why I suddenly have a burst of energy when I hear my favorite hip-hop song come on.) Additionally, a new study by the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital revealed that dopamine (the happy chemical) is released in the brain when you listen to music you enjoy. With all of these positive effects, it is no wonder why certain competitions prohibit athletes from listening to music directly before or during the event.
Do all people react the same to music?
Most of the population, with the exception of 3 to 5% who have musical anhedonia ( i.e. have apathy when listening to music), are emotionally and physically affected by music. Neuroscientists have discovered that for most people, music enters the nervous system through the auditory brainstem and causes the cerebellum to 'light up' on a brain scan. The type of music an individual prefers is the one that will make the brain "light up" the most and have a greater impact. So the next time you want to get into a specific mood or mindset, choose the type of music that generates an emotional response in you.
Does listening to music positively impact all activities?
As noted above, listening to music can increase physical capacity and influence your mood. However, studies show that this was most effective during low to moderate level intensity exercise. During high-intensity levels, music was seen as less effective. It doesn't seem to reduce the perception of fatigue when people push themselves beyond their anaerobic point (when lactic acid begins to accumulate in the bloodstream). Why? Perhaps it is because at these high levels, the body’s physical feedback dominates the nervous system so much that distraction by music is difficult to achieve. It could also be that during these high-intensity levels, the individual is more focused on completing the activity and performing well that music becomes much more of a distraction.
Can different music elicit different reactions?
Research shows that it is not the genre of music you listen to that has an impact, it is whether or not you like what you are listening to. When you listen to music you like, your physiological response is greater. So if you want to feel empowered, happy, or sad, listen to music that makes you feel that way. In addition to listening to what you like, the following have also been shown to make an impact on your mood. 1) Want to feel "powerful and determined"? Listen to music with high bass levels. 2) Want to feel happy or euphoric? Listen to your favorite playlist on shuffle mode. It has been shown that randomness in music can increase your dopamine level, 3) Want to naturally reduce your stress and reduce your perception of pain? Listen to music loudly. Your inner ear (specifically the sacculus) has direct connections to the pleasure centers in the brain. It releases endorphins which reduce our perception of pain and stress.