The Science Behind the Sound (Music Therapy and Our Brains)

How Music Therapy Helps our Brains and the Facts to Back it up.

Image courtesy of Strahman Lab

For centuries, Music Therapy has proven its value -- headlining in research articles across the globe. Although its success is familiar, do we know the exact changes which occur in our bodies during a therapy session?

According to researchers, music and rhythmic vibrations trigger chemical releases within the brain, altering a patient’s state physically and mentally.

In this post, we will take a close look into the chemicals affected by Music Therapy:

  • Endorphins
  • Cortisol
  • Dopamine
  • Immunoglobulin

As well as music’s influence on Neuroplasticity.


Reducing Pain and Boosting Pleasure

Endorphins are chemicals produced by the nervous system that act as pain and stress relievers. These natural opioids are rumored to decrease the likelihood of depression. A few ways to raise endorphin levels include -- laughing, meditating, exercising, and eating spicy foods.

A black and white chemical structure of an Endorphin featuring Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen and Sulfur atoms.
The chemical structure of an Endorphin found in the brain. Image courtesy of Target Health LLC.

Music and Endorphins

Our brains use the same pathways to process pain as they do music. Because of this, it is much harder to process pain while focusing on a guitar solo. Listening to music is much like a runner’s high, where endorphins are plentiful.

With the help of a therapist, chronic pain can be minimized within a 30-minute jam session.


Regulating Stress Hormones

Stemming from the adrenal glands, Cortisol is a steroid hormone linked with stress response. It is responsible for controlling blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, reducing inflammation, and aiding with memory formulation. During pregnancy, Cortisol supports the developing fetus.

Although it is an essential hormone, gently lowering Cortisol levels ease stress and anxiety.

Black chemical structure of Cortisol featuring Hydrogens and Oxygen atoms
Cortisol’s chemical structure, which is made up of Hydrogen and Oxygen. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Music and Cortisol

Music is known to induce relaxation. When listening to music, the body’s natural stress hormones decrease, resulting in a decrease in anxiety. Those who are less anxious tend to have better sleeping patterns, which also helps limit stress and allows for a healthier workday.

A recent study measured the amount of cortisol in patients undergoing surgery. One group had music playing in the background, the other did not. On average, the patients who listened to music had lower amounts of cortisol in their bodies.


Increasing Pleasurable Stimuli

Dopamine, commonly referred to as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, is responsible for carrying reward messages between neurons. The brain releases dopamine during pleasurable situations such as eating and exercising. Dopamine is significant to the neural system, as it amplifies learning ability, mood, motivation, attention, and emotional response.

White and black chemical structure of Dopamine featuring Oxygen, Hydrogen, and Nitrogen atoms.
The chemical structure of Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Music and Dopamine

Have you ever gotten chills from a favorite song or a talented singer? Researchers at McGill University in Montreal say this is a sign of dopamine release. Their study measured the relation between music and Dopamine through brain scans. The results showed that dopamine levels were up to nine percent higher in test subjects when they listened to a song they enjoyed.

As mentioned earlier, Dopamine is usually triggered by tangible things. By listening to music, we are able to benefit through an abstract concept-- making high dopamine levels much easier to obtain.


Strengthening the Immune System

More commonly called an antibody, Immunoglobulin is an immune system protein that fights foreign substances or antigen. Antibodies connect to antigens and destroy them before they can infect us with diseases and toxins.

An antibody structuring with blue representing the heavy chain and pink representing the light chain.
The four-chained structure of the antibody Immunoglobulin. This molecule is formed from two identical light chains and two identical heavy chains bonded to form a Y shape. Image courtesy of Britannica.

Music and Immunoglobulin

Music has been found to improve the body’s immune system. Studies show that listening to and playing music directly increases the output of Immunoglobulin A and other antibodies. With more antibodies, it is easier to fight off your body’s foreign invaders.


The Brain’s Healing Process

In the past, the brain was thought to be an irreplaceable organ-- neurons simply aged and then died. In 1948, scientist Jerry Konorski found that this was not so. The brain was able to restructure after experiencing a traumatic event. This became known as neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt, and was widely recognized in the 1960s.

Neuroplasticity in Children

The brain’s plasticity is at its highest during childhood due to immaturity. Our brain’s learning ability is based on external experiences that rely heavily on critical periods. Critical periods refer to a timeline in which we must experience certain factors in order to develop at a normal rate. For example, the critical period for language is the first six years of life. If a child is only first exposed after this time, the likelihood of learning declines greatly.

A little girl wearing a leather jacket plays a pink toy guitar.
Photo of a young child experiencing external factors by playing with a toy.  Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Because of greater neuroplasticity, children are more likely to adapt -- as long as they have experienced critical periods.

Neuroplasticity in Adults

Although the brain is fully developed at age 25, there is still room for growth. New neurons are done forming but now, the main focus is strengthening the connections between neurons. By doing this, we are able to strengthen the likelihood of healing after a brain injury.

A woman in a mustard jacket listens to music through headphones.
Photo of a woman reinforcing her neurons by listening to music. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Music and Neuroplasticity

Plasticity changes occur in brains of all shapes and sizes, all professions, and all ages. A 2003 study compared the plasticity of musicians’ brains to non-musicians’ brains, finding that several areas in the frontal cortex (motor regions, anterior superior parietal areas, and inferior temporal areas) were further developed among musicians.

The University of Bergen in Norway conducted an experiment on the effects of music therapy on patients with mild brain trauma. They explored the functional changes in the orbitofrontal cortex before and after musical training. The results showed significant changes, which led to six out of seven patients improving in social and cognitive behavior and eventually, returning to work.

Music Therapy Techniques

Enhancing Your Brain Chemistry

Common ways Music Therapists will strengthen the brain, courtesy of  PositivePsychology

  • Drumming
  • Listening to live or recorded music
  • Learning music-assisted relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing
  • The singing of familiar songs with live or recorded accompaniment
  • Playing instruments, such as hand percussion
  • Improvising music on instruments of voice
  • Writing song lyrics
  • Writing the music for new songs
  • Learning to play an instrument, such as piano or guitar
  • Creating art with music
  • Dancing or moving to live or recorded music
  • Writing choreography for music
  • Discussing one’s emotional reaction or meaning attached to a particular song or improvisation

It is important to know the reasons why a form of therapy works, so you are not thrown into an overwhelming situation. By having an understanding of the brain’s structure and music’s influence on it, you will find that self-improvement is easier to grasp. Now that you are well-informed on the science behind Music Therapy, it is time to put the facts into practice.

Edited by Cara Jernigan on January 17, 2021

Jessica Fortunato
Jessica Fortunato is a writer who also enjoys photography, music, and hiking.
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