Music is much more than a pleasant diversion. It also can be a useful tool to spark memories, bond with others and increase productivity, to name a few examples. Here’s how you can use music to enrich your life.
You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to know that hearing music can trigger memories. The songs played at your prom remind you of your high school sweetheart; pop songs from decades ago remind you of old jobs, friends and neighborhoods. Even a commercial jingle can transport you back to your childhood home. Songs we like best or heard first in childhood seem to have the most power to light up our memories, according to a recent Global Council on Brain Health report on music and the brain.
So why wait to hear those old songs by chance? Research confirms that we can use music as a memory aid, says Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies music and memory at the University of California, Davis.
“Actively pulling up music from one’s past that you have association with is going to help rekindle those old memories,” he says.
Even people with Alzheimer’s disease remain responsive to music from their earlier years, anecdotal reports suggest, possibly because a brain region that links music, memory and emotion is one of the last to atrophy in the disease. Many caregivers have responded to such reports by making nostalgic playlists for loved ones with failing memories.
But anyone can take advantage of the music-and-memory link. Today’s technology makes it easy, Janata notes: Just go to your favorite music streaming service, pick a decade or artist from your past and see what memories flow. Write some snippets down and you have the start of a musical autobiography.
Maybe it starts in the womb: Our parents sing to us and we form our first human bonds. Later, we may bond with others over camp songs, school anthems or the music in our houses of worship, concert halls and homes.
When we play, sing or listen to music together, our brains release neurochemicals that boost social bonds. One study, conducted at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, found that adults who gathered for singing classes over several months bonded more quickly than those who took crafting or writing classes.
Group singing, like dancing, laughing and religious rituals, may fill a deep human need, says lead researcher Eiluned Pearce, now a research fellow at University College London.
“Humans don’t have time to create social bonds by grooming with everyone in our larger social groups one-on-one,” as other primates do, she says. “So, we needed to evolve more efficient bonding mechanisms.” Singing might not work in every setting, however: “I’m not sure that forcing everyone to sing before business meetings, for example, would have the same effect.”
Surgeons do it. So do some office workers. They listen to music while they work and claim that it improves performance. Music may help by reducing stress, boosting focus and masking other sounds. But before you pop in those earbuds, consider a few science-based guidelines:
- Instrumental music is probably best. Research suggests lyrics tend to be distracting and actually reduce concentration and attention.
- Choose your own tunes, if possible. A classic study found that surgeons who worked to music they chose worked more quickly and accurately, with less stress, than those who worked to music chosen by someone else.
- Use upbeat music to motivate yourself through boring, repetitive tasks. Try less intrusive background music for reading and other tasks requiring a lot of mental effort. But know that for some people, music of any sort is too distracting — and silence is the best music of all. —Kim Painter