There’s no greater feeling than listening to your favorite song. It brings happiness and enjoyment, and according to a new study, music can have a very powerful and measurable effect on the brain. It doesn’t matter if you listen to classical or pop, your favorite tune will likely trigger a similar type of activity seen in all who enjoy it, regardless of genre.
Music can be very personal, invoking a bevy of emotions from joy to sadness and affecting us all in unique ways. Jonathan Burdette, M.D., a neurologist at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and a researcher on the effects of music on the brain, believes that music is very primal and that your brain has a reaction when you do like something and when you don’t.
The study sought to investigate the effect musical preference has on brain function with the aid of function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This type of imaging provides a visual representation of brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. The study followed 21 people while they listened to music of varying genres, from rap to classical, and asked them to rate which they liked and which they disliked. The researchers also observed brain activity to a song or piece of music that the participants had personally chosen as their favorite.
What they found was that the fMRIs showed consistent patterns, that the listeners’ preferences—not the type of music they were listening to—had the greatest impact on brain connectivity, especially in areas known to be involved in internally focused thought, empathy, and self-awareness. This same area was observed to be poorly connected when participants were listening to music they disliked, with the most connection seen when listening to a favorite piece of music. The researchers also found that listening to favorite songs altered the connectivity between auditory brain areas and a region of the brain thought to be responsible for memory and social emotion consolidation.
“Given that music preferences are uniquely individualized phenomena and that music can vary in acoustic complexity and the presence or absence of lyrics, the consistency of our results was unexpected,” the researchers wrote. “These findings may explain why comparable emotional and mental states can be experienced by people listening to music that differs as widely as Beethoven and Eminem.”
Burdette himself is fascinated by the effects of music on the brain, as he is a musician himself. He says that music may not play a role in the cure for any particular disease, but may have a substantial impact in a therapeutic role.
“If you’re trying to restore neuroplasticity in the brain, to re-establish some of the connections that were there before the injury, music can be a big help, and I’d like to see it used more widely in this country,” he said.