Music is a universal feature of human culture – not a single civilisation or society has existed without it. The benefits of musical engagement are so wide ranging and consequential that rather than thinking of music as a hobby or recreational activity, I believe it makes more sense to conceive of it as an essential component of optimised human functioning – something akin to drinking lots of water or scranning plentiful veggies.
And to consider the other side of the coin, if music falls closer to the category of needs than of wants, then it follows that to be deprived of music is to suffer from a deficiency of sorts. Could there be such a diagnosis as ‘musically deficient?’ Before you decry my hyperbole, let’s take a closer look at the all encompassing benefits that listening to and playing music can offer.
Said benefits have long since been the object of scientific investigation, and numerous studies have shown just how extensive the list is. Some of the highlights include: improved cognitive function, particularly in the form of enhanced memory and attention; reduced levels of stress, and of the hormone cortisol commonly associated with stress; enhanced creativity; improved motor functioning; and increased prosocial behaviour, by nature of amplified goodwill towards others and greater feelings of unity. In short, music makes your brain work better, resulting in a friendlier, happier you!
How so? The brain, like any muscle, needs exercise in order to be strengthened or maintained. Music is the perfect cerebral workout, because it stimulates so many different regions and networks of the brain simultaneously. Researchers have used functional MRI to demonstrate that processing music requires significant activity in parts of the brain associated with language, memory, emotion, movement, and auditory perception, amongst others. The effects of musically-induced improvements in cognition are perhaps most palpable in the radiant smiles of otherwise nonresponsive Alzheimer’s patients, but are equally salient in brains of all ages.
Music is also known to trigger the release of the hormones dopamine, associated with pleasure and reward, and oxytocin, associated with feelings of love and bonding. So you could say that taking in some music is somewhat equivalent to a nice strong eccy, but without the existential dread of the morrow. A win-win!
The remnants of a flute that archaeologists have dated to around 35,000 BC give us some indication of just how long we’ve been at this whole music thing – people must have been singing and drumming long before any flute was invented, before we were even human perhaps. Experts have even speculated that something resembling music predates our use of language as a means of communicating. The theory goes that before we had words, we expressed ourselves using rhythmic, pitched vocalisations analogous to birdsong. Is it any wonder then that music has become so integral to our species, given the vast millenia over which it has been gently embedding itself ever nearer to our very core?
My sentiment then is this: music is great! Unlike ‘tonic,’ the word ‘music’ does imply health giving properties. So not only are you doing yourself a favour by sticking on a playlist of absolute bangers, it would literally be detrimental to your physical and mental wellbeing not to. Let’s just hope that neighbours will be understanding.