What Science is Telling Us

If I were not a physicist I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.
Albert Einstein

Well, first let me offer this disclaimer. I am not a brain scientist. While I’m making disclaimers let me also add that I am not a pastor or a licensed counselor either. I’ve spent much of the last thirty years of my life working with pastors and therapists in order to use my expertise as a crafter of songs to share the wisdom of people in those professions. It is a privilege for me to be able to call these people my colleagues.

For years I knew that songs were an effective way to create breakthroughs for people struggling with difficult emotional and psychological issues. I knew this because of dozens of personal experiences where I saw songs turn out to be life changing for people – and because of dozens of anecdotes related to me by therapists who used songs successfully with clients. But for the longest time, I couldn’t point to any credible science that explained this phenomenon. That all changed when I discovered Daniel Levitin’s book “This is Your Brain on Music” and the work of the late Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Music touches us emotionally, where words alone can’t.
Johnny Depp

Turns out Depp is right! So! Why does it work?  First, allow me to describe some of what I’ve learned as simply as I can. The brain has two hemispheres. Language is processed primarily in the left hemisphere of the brain and melody is processed primarily in the right. Both the left and right sides are necessary for complete perception of rhythm. This means that when you are listening to a song containing language, melody, and rhythm your whole brain is engaged. I believe that this is what people mean when they say a song touches both mind and heart. In this case “mind and heart” is a loosely translated layman’s term for the integration that is happening in the different regions of the human brain when a song is being heard. Trauma is also stored in the right hemisphere of the brain. 

That’s why songs are so powerful in addressing trauma issues. To give you a visual way to think of it imagine a brick wall. We all build walls to protect ourselves from pain. Words can often bounce off those walls, failing to penetrate our defenses. But music has a way of seeping through the cracks in those walls. It can soften our resistance and open our heart before we even realize it. Once that heart has been opened then a healing message can be placed there. The melody also adds an extra layer of meaning to the lyrics.

This makes a song especially powerful in generating a response from the listener. In effect, a song is doubling down – not only using the power of words to communicate but also using the power of melody to communicate those emotions and feelings that are beyond words. Additionally, music engages the limbic system of the brain where it is processed at the speed of light to “fast track” emotions.

This is why one can hear a song and before we know it we are tearing up. Or we can be in a downer mood and suddenly we hear that song that reminds us of our favorite summer and boom – there we are! Riding down the highway with the top down and the wind in our hair. Levitin puts it this way: “Our body is designed to respond to music. It does so without any control or volition on our part. The brain’s reward center responds to music. Music changes our state of mind and studies show that it can actually physically change our brain” Here’s another interesting fact. Vibrations cause sound.

It is these vibrations that stimulate your eardrum. When so stimulated, your eardrum actually moves in response to the vibrations. So when you say you are “moved” by a song, you aren’t kidding.

Responsiveness to music is an essential part of our neural nature.
Dr. Oliver Sacks

Neuroscientists such as the aforementioned Dr. Oliver Sacks of Columbia University and Dr. Robert J. Zatorre of Montreal Neurological Institute have both done work showing the responsiveness to music in neurologically challenged patients. If music can help stroke patients to speak and Parkinson’s patients to walk, both functions of brain response—and if, as Levitin says, “The part of the brain where music goes to directly [is] related to your deep emotions”—it follows then that music can have a profound impact on emotional healing.

According to Diane Austin, adjunct associate professor of music therapy at New York University and executive director of the Music Psychotherapy Center in New York, “Nothing accesses the inner world of feelings, sensations, memories, and associations as directly as music does.”

Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling.
A song makes you feel a thought.
E.Y. Harburg

Levitin confirms Harburg’s observation. “As a tool for activation of specific thought music is not as good as language. As a tool for arousing feelings and emotion music is better than language.” This last sentence is the one that best describes why I have devoted myself to the work of Music for the Soul for the last twenty years. The amazing thing is that the good brain science news doesn’t end there. I referred to the staying power of a song in the previous section. It turns out there is science behind that too!

The most current research shows that melody and rhythm are powerful memory devices. In our context as Music for the Soul that means that singing messages of hope and healing increases the likelihood they will be retained. It should not be surprising to learn that songs can be used as a memory device. After all, we’ve been teaching kids the ABCs with a song since before forever. In fact, I heard a statistic from a study done with school-age children in California that found that children remember 10% of what they’re told, 40% of what they read, and 90% of what they hear in music.

Memory is not the only mind function positively affected by music.

According to the American Music Conference, young people who are involved in making music during their teenage years score one hundred points higher on their SATs than those who don’t play music. This makes it even more inexplicable that music programs are among the first to be cut when schools experience budget issues. This is especially true in light of new brain research showing that music prepares students to be more equipped for success in non-musical roles in the workplace.

My wife will tell you that I can lay down my keys and in fifteen minutes have absolutely no idea where I put them. But ask me to sing any random song from my teen years and I’m good. My friend Dwight Liles can sing the entire second side of Abbey Road from memory at the drop of a hat.

In his book, Levitin says, “Music taps into primitive brain structures involved with motivation reward and emotion. Music listening and music therapy have been shown to help people overcome a broad range of psychological and physical problems.” He goes on to say that, “Music predates agriculture in the history of our species.” 

According to Dr.Sheila C. Woodward music also predates our birth in the human experience. Her research focus is music and well being. Dr. Woodward has been able to show that at seventeen to nineteen weeks a fetus can hear the rhythm of blood rushing through the uterine artery. Elements of rhythm and harmony are in this. She also did a study where she put a microphone and a camera in the womb and was able to prove that “music itself is audible in the womb.”

I have personal experience with this. When my wife became pregnant with our first child, I felt a little envious. Sure, we were pregnant, but my wife obviously had an advantage over me in terms of connection. I wanted the baby to have a connection with me as well, one that extended beyond the bloodline and into an actual relationship. So I decided to try a musical experiment. Night after night I got close to my wife’s abdomen, and I sang:

Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so

I did this for several months. I was in the room with my wife when our daughter Stephanie was born. Immediately one of the nurses, sounding concerned, said, “Doctor, look at this.” One of our daughter’s arms was limp at her side. The doctor suspected she might have a dislocated shoulder as a result of having come through the birth canal.

The nurse tightly swaddled my daughter and allowed me to come with her when she took Stephanie and placed her in a hospital crib in a nearby room. I stood over my brand-new baby girl who was screaming and turning a lovely combination of red and purple and softly sang:

Jesus loves me
This I know…

Stephanie immediately looked up at me, or at least in the direction of my voice, and stopped crying. She recognized and remembered the song!

Levitin has more to say on memory. “The multitude of reinforcing cues of a good song; rhythm, melody, and contour cause music to stick in our head and that’s the reason why many ancient myths, epics, and even the Old Testament were set to music in preparation for being passed down by oral tradition across the generations.”

The book of Psalms, of course, is a prime example.

So as you can see there is abundant scientific evidence that a song is one of the best, if not the best, forms of communication if you want to tap deep into a person and make a connection.

A song is also the best means for communicating something that you want a person to remember. They might read it and forget it. You might tell them and they’ll forget it. But if you sing it to them it’s going to put the hook in. It’s why in the music industry they actually call the chorus of a song the hook; that’s the part you can’t stop singing after you hear the song on the radio. What we do at Music for the Soul is make the hook the heart of the message.

Before moving off of science it seems only fair to give our brain scientist tour guide Dr. Levitin the last word. “The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration. It involves the precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems.”

No wonder we love it.

Go To List

    stay connected! enter your email to receive our monthly newsletter