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The impact of music on learning and wellbeing

There’s nothing like an uplifting tune when it comes to refuelling, resting and connecting
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Most of us have a jam: that special song we belt out in the car, use as a workout soundtrack or generally get our groove on to whenever we’re in need of a pick-me-up. But what exactly is it about music, regardless of our personal tastes in the medium, that has the power to uplift, energise and inspire us?

The answer, it seems, is a scientific one. Researchers have found that listening to music releases a rush of dopamine: the pleasure chemical in our brain that surges forth when we anticipate a reward (also the same chemical triggered by food and sex). Of course, listening to music isn’t essential to the survival of humanity like food and sex are, so it seems strange that we’re biologically programmed to want more of it. One theory is that music establishes patterns, which we unconsciously try to figure out so we can predict what’s coming next. When we’re correct, our brain gives us that lovely dopamine reward and in some cases ‘the chills’: that weird and wonderful sensation of shivers tingling down our spine.

Whatever its purpose, music delivers so much more than the feel-good factor alone. Scientists are learning each day just how great an impact certain tunes can have on our wellbeing. They know, for instance, that it can help us regulate our emotions and change our mood, with one study suggesting that listening to upbeat music can make you happier in just two weeks. Further studies reveal it can lower anxiety; reduce symptoms of depression (unless you’re listening to sad songs, that is!); and even act as a form of pain relief in a medical setting.Our findings indicate that music listening impacted the psychobiological stress system. Listening to music prior to a standardised stressor predominantly affected the autonomic nervous system (in terms of a faster recovery), and to a lesser degree the endocrine and psychological stress response. These findings may help better understanding the beneficial effects of music on the human body.

Listening to music can also help you learn and retain information more effectively. Unsurprisingly, not all music is created equal in this respect; singing along to your favourite tunes while trying to absorb information isn’t ideal, but music of a different nature can often do the trick. According to a 2007 study, listening to classical symphonies increased brain activity in participants, helping them absorb and interpret new information. (Researchers concluded this was because the music – or, more specifically, the brief silences between movements – engaged the areas of the brain linked to paying attention, making predictions and updating events in the memory.) Yet another study showed that listening to classical music seemed to help older adults perform better on memory and processing tasks. Interestingly, upbeat music helped them finish cognitive tests faster than they did while listening to white noise or no music, while both upbeat and downbeat music gave them the advantage in memory tasks. Little wonder then that Johns Hopkins specialists say listening to music is a fantastic tool for our brains as we age, likening it to “a total brain workout”.

We could sing the praises of music even further (see what we did there?). It helps us unwind, with low arousal classical music providing the ideal gateway to a state of relaxation. And there’s nothing like music for sparking connections. Think of all the celebrations, religious festivities and social events you’ve attended over the years that have involved music. Strumming a guitar around a campfire; singing along with family and friends at birthday parties; screaming your lungs out at concerts or, if you’re a diehard sports fan, big games. Music can also help us recall notable moments in our lives, particularly from our formative years. Like certain tastes and scents, it has the power to evoke strong memories and reactions, taking us back to pivotal moments in time.

If all these ideas have gotten you in the mood for an inspiring tune, may we suggest listening to Barber's Adagio for Strings, the second movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Debussy's Claire de Lune – three songs that researchers have found to be especially effective at triggering a dopamine release. Happy listening!

- The Coach Place Global.

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