From life-long audiophiles to those just discovering their passion for music, there is no shortage of people who have experienced music’s transformative power.
Ravers, festival lovers, and music makers know this story well: With a simple beat, a challenging day can transform into a dreamscape.
A 303 synth pulsating through a headphone can transport you back in time to the moment you first felt time and space evaporate as hundreds of dancing bodies swayed in ecstatic unison on the dancefloor–whether it be weeks, months, or years ago.
Music speaks where words fail, and with intention, music can even pave a path toward healing, both physically and mentally.
How is it that sound can have such immense power, and just how much can music really change lives? As poetic and even mystical as this all may sound, science is providing new clues into how the magic really works.
Music Changes The Brain
“Within [three or four] beats, music starts to change the brain,” explains Neurologic Music Therapy expert Suzanne Oliver. Neurologic Music Therapy is an evidence-based treatment system developed to impact different parts of the brain using sound.
“We know that music can impact our mental state, our motor skills, and language. So using research on how this works in healthy brains, we aim to develop exercises that use music to help people think, move and react better,” Oliver explains.
Oliver reveals that recent research shows music can help create connections between parts of the brain that don’t normally communicate.
Inverse to this idea, when certain parts of the brain don’t communicate well with each other people can experience many forms of ailments. Trauma, injury, disease, and genetic disorders can all contribute to poor connectivity in the brain.
In turn, this can trigger difficult conditions like mood dysregulation, poor physical mobility, attention and memory issues, and other challenges.
Using music’s ability to create connectivity in the brain, Neurologic Music Therapy can help people alleviate or recover from these symptoms. Oliver has seen this improve many lives, including those with permanent brain damage like stroke patients.
Tingles And Tears: How Sound Taps Into The Senses
If all that isn’t mind-wracking enough, music’s brain-bending qualities extend beyond clinical settings. Oliver explains that just listening to music can help improve focus and attention, boost energy (or wind down energy), and regulate mood.
As Natalie Brown puts it, “People use music in their daily lives as a soundtrack to shift how they feel.” As a music educator, sound healing practitioner, and interdisciplinary musician, Brown’s approach using practices like sound baths and meditation reveals another side to the marvelous tale between music and the mind
A sound bath is a session in which a practitioner plays a variety of instruments like gongs, crystal singing bowls, or flutes to guide listeners into a meditative state.
Within this state, people can feel calmer, improve daily focus, even process difficult emotions and experiences, and sound can enhance this meditative state: “Sound provides a source of focus as [clients] intentionally slow down the mind and body, which allows them to enter a meditative state,” Brown says.
I can attest that sound baths can produce profound experiences. Recalling my first sound bath, I lay in a dark yoga studio as my hands tingled and faint geometric color patterns flashed under my eyelids every time a gong strike flooded the room with a kaleidoscope of vibration.
I couldn’t tell where exactly my mind had gone, but it sure wasn’t where I’d left it 30 minutes ago.
Behind The Magic
The scientific nuts and bolts of how exactly sound can produce these experiences are still largely a mystery. Nonetheless, it’s known that sound-guided meditation can shift brain waves.
This is significant because sound can help meditators access deep relaxation and insights that emerge when brain waves shift from the default problem-solving Beta state into the deeper, dreamier, and even trance-like Alpha and Theta states.
These brain waves are also associated with the flow state, which is a heightened state of mind triggered by deep focus (usually tied to an activity like dance or music performance) as well as psychedelic experiences.
Some claim that frequencies like binaural beats can be particularly beneficial–or as Brown explains, “[Binaural beats] have been shown to help the two hemispheres of the brain get in sync with each other, and that balancing can enhance how the nervous system behaves.”
Music can also benefit memory. Most people have probably experienced this too when listening to their favorite song; I call these moments “music flashbacks”.
As it turns out, music has an exceptionally strong connection to memory because, according to recent studies mentioned by Oliver, there’s a special part of the brain dedicated to music memory.
Back To The Stage
From this far down the science-geeking rabbit hole, it might seem the journey has strayed from the realm of dancefloors and booming speakers.
Nonetheless, the same elements that fuel music’s transformative power in yoga studios and therapy sessions live there, too. Visionary musician and sound healing enthusiast Giorgia Angiuli provides insight into how it’s all possible.
As a producer, Angiuli takes a unique approach to creating and experiencing music. When she was growing up in Italy, she trained classically for several years and performed rock and metal before being drawn to electronic music and sound healing.
After discovering that music greatly helped her find relief from anxiety, she felt inspired to share her experience with the public: “For me, making music is all about giving hope to people, keeping us connected and aware” Angiuli explains from a hotel room in Brazil in the midst of a South American tour.
Angiuli also developed a novel app and apparatus called Kalya which uses wearable EEG technology to help users monitor and alter their mental and emotional state in real-time with the aid of sound.
The Power Of The Beat
On stage, Angiuli uses a variety of live instruments and electronic styles to curate her desired experience. However, underneath it all, the most powerful tool in Angiuli’s musical arsenal is perhaps the most simple one of all–one to which Oliver and Brown repeatedly referred in their conversations: rhythm.
According to Oliver, the beats and rhythm that make ravers dance the night away without any sense of time is part of what makes electronic music special: “Rhythm is especially impactful on the brain”, she explains. “That’s why I think highly rhythmic music like electronic dance music has such a powerful full-body physical, motor, and emotional effect”.
Angiuli knows this well, and she uses rhythm to create a window into the listener’s mind–something which music-makers have been doing for millennia:
“If you think about techno, it’s fast music with an intense beat, but it comes from a shamanic tradition of beat and rhythm,” Angiuli explains. “Shamanic traditions have used beats to get people into states of trance for thousands of years.”
Science And Art Woven Together By Intention
Like Oliver and Brown, Angiuli illuminates yet another approach to harnessing music’s transformative power with the aid of science.
Even so, while science provides insight into the mechanisms of how sound and music affect human beings, the feelings that listening, playing, or dancing to music create are ineffable.
As such, the last piece of the puzzle that Oliver, Brown, and Angiuli’s approaches all utilize is hard to quantify yet extremely important.
As Angiuli explains: “The way the sound affects you depends on the way you want to perceive it.”
Everyone perceives music in a different way, and intention is the tool that ultimately fuels music’s transformative power.
Angiuli, Oliver, and Brown’s perspectives reveal that science and theory set the foundation for music’s potential to change the human mind, but how that happens is all a matter of choice.
As a scientist, Oliver is the first to call attention to this, as she notes that everyone’s mind is different, and in order for music therapy to work the way a person wants it to, it’s up to the individual to find music that works for them.
It’s why before leading a sound bath, Brown sets an intention for the session–and anticipates her clients do so as well.
Angiuli also agrees: “As a musician, I need to put intention into the music I create, and I think the audience also needs to be aware of their intentions.”
It might sound simplistic, but Brown encapsulates just how powerful music’s science-based benefits can be when paired with an intention like healing or hope:
“The biggest miracle is seeing people completely change their lives. It can be someone finally following their dreams after getting over things they were really stuck on like past relationships or trauma, or seeing people find inspiration, find joy, find hope because of music and sound– that’s what it’s all about. Hope is the answer to everything.”
Like many of life’s great mysteries, the key to what makes music transformative is a curious mix of known and unknown–both within our grasp and outside of it.
Nonetheless, with the help of science, music changes lives, and that’s nothing short of a miracle.
Some of Giorgia Angiuli’s quotes were translated from Italian to English.