Music is an especially human phenomenon.
Animals and even songbirds, oddly, don’t hear melody the way we do. And although an estimated 10 percent of the human population doesn’t enjoy music, most of us seem to naturally know that it can have a powerful impact on our mental health, and can make us feel more beautiful.
Neuroscientists know why. If you like Joni Mitchell’s hit song “Big Yellow Taxi,” the very first bars click the on button to your brain’s reward centers: the nucleus accumbens, the amygdala and other parts of the brain that vary the level of dopamine, a chemical even scientists call happy juice. Singing together also produces oxytocin, a trust hormone released during female orgasm. A “brain on music” lights up like a Christmas tree.
People enjoy variety in music because our brains are constantly trying to predict what will come next in any musical sequence. We love complexities, so master musicians and composers set the rules and subtly break them with nuances—just enough to keep us engaged and still grounded.
Some people like more predictability, others less. Small children like a lot. Ask any parent trapped with Barney’s “I Love You” on a long car ride. (Those bits that stick in your head have a scientific name: earworms.) Kid music is irritating because an adult brain craves variety and gets so much pleasure from it.
Music tickles the mind, which may be one of the reasons why Americans spend more on music than on prescription drugs, reports Daniel Levitin, author of "This is Your Brain on Music" and "The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature." Music has been shown to reduce pain by 21 percent, reduce depression by 25 percent and boost immunity.
You might try putting on your favorite relaxing music when you have a headache or virus. Is music an anti-depressant? People have used it for that purpose for centuries. As Levitin puts it, he was with Joni Mitchell once when a fan confided to her, “Before there was Prozac, there was you.”
Just about any music can be downloaded for free these days in some version. But concerts are still a good buy. Money spent on an experience leads to more lasting happiness than products like a new dress. Let’s say your choice is between $300 for tickets to four concerts or a professional teeth-whitening. Chances are when you’re glowing and humming the day after a concert, you’ll get compliments on your beautiful smile—even with average-looking teeth.
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