The power of music

Grace Worsham

Life Editor

Easterly Yeaman

Staff Writer

As Dani Nisbet walks past the candlelit chapel pews, he focuses on the piano ahead of him. His hands touch the keys, and his nerves suddenly dissipate as the music flows with muscle memory. The original piece captivates the audience and leads to a standing ovation after the final note. Nisbet smiles at the unexpected praise: a feeling he won’t forget.


When people listen to their favorite pieces of music, their brains often release dopamine, giving an addictive euphoric high. Songs can correlate with certain memories or evoke a specific emotion. This unique power makes music an integral part of the human experience.

According to Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill University who studied the brain on music, “music affects deep emotional centers in the brain,” and during peak emotional moments in certain songs, dopamine is often released in the nucleus accumbens: a neural interface located in the older part of the brain.

Certain musical combinations also have the ability to stick in a person’s memory, especially if it’s something simple and easy to remember. In the auditory part of the brain, the catchy tune causes a ‘cognitive itch,’ an idea that originally came from marketing professor James Kellaris at the University of Cincinnati. Listening to a song is the only way to scratch the ‘itch.’

“Our mind looks for patterns echoically (with sound) or ionically (visually),” psychology teacher Amy Henderson said. “A song is catchy if it has a pattern that can stay in our brains.”

 In her study, Salimpor found that when listening to unfamiliar songs, the brain interacted with structures responsible for musical memory and pattern recognition. Dopamine was only released in the brain when subjects listened to familiar songs or when they recognized patterns in new music. In other words, most catchy songs are familiar to the listener, and it’s those memorable sounds that create an emotional response.

“We learn a theory about chord progressions, and I think there are certain chord progressions that people are attracted to,” Upper School Choir Teacher Joe Snyder said. “There are lots of pop rock songs that use the same four chords, and it’s just like they relate to it somehow.”

The combination of a familiar and catchy tune with certain lyrics can have a deep emotional impact on the listener. Music can fill us with all types of emotions like joy, sadness, fear, comfort and much more. Memory also plays a part in emotional responses from music and generating nostalgia as the brain associates certain songs with different memories and the emotions attached to them.

“The basic idea is that music evokes emotion and a lot of the things that we can remember are attached to an emotion,” Antonia Moran, who attended a lecture by Renee Fleming on Music and the Mind, said. “Scientists are learning a lot more about the brain but there’s still so much to learn. And they’re sort of realizing that everything is connected.”

For example, Dani Nisbet has played piano since second grade and writes his own musical pieces. For Nisbet, many of his music pieces are attached to emotions or a certain memory.

“A few of my pieces are named after a certain emotion like for example my first one was called happiness,” Nisbet said. “It was… ironic, because my mom had to go back to Pakistan for my grandmother who was [passing] during my recital so the next piece [I made] was called remembrance. So, each one of my pieces reminds me of a certain memory, and it is all attached to something.”

Junior Jake Kelton, who also writes and performs his own music, believes that music can not only connect to memories and emotions, but can also be a way to see how your interests have evolved over time.

“I definitely hold certain memories with songs,” Kelton said. “I think that music is a great thing to tie [to other] things you’ve done. I also like looking at the music I have listened to over the years and seeing how my taste has changed and evolved. I also like seeing how the music I listen to influences what I create.”

Math teacher Chris Northrup explains that music became an outlet for him at a young age and also a way to find his own identity. He explains that he really began to express himself when he started to play guitar in high school.

        “I could be alone in my room learning anything I wanted [on the guitar,]” Northrup said. “Especially when [you are in high school], music is a huge part of your identity, at least for my generation, and so being able to connect with it by not just listening and understanding what the singer is saying but also being able to play what they are playing made me identify even stronger with [music].”

Although music is a common interest and often integral part of daily life, it often affects people in different ways by how they associate or relate to music. For some writers like Kelton, he pays more attention to the instrumental chords and the message the artist is trying to convey and is also more critical of his own pieces.

“I’m really critical of my music when I make it,” Kelton said. “There are a lot of times that I just delete stuff when I’m done [and if I do release it], I never listen to it once it’s out. Now that I make music I listen to it very differently. I [will listen] to a song and try to break down every part of the instrumental or listen to how the artist is getting their message across.”

Music can not only be deciphered differently, but according to Northrup, can teach you things as well. He explains he has learned life skills from creating music that has had a heavily positive impact on him.

“[Music] has… helped me figure out how to plan and follow through and also helped me learn to be really analytical,” Northrup said. “When you’re learning how to play a song, the first thing you need to do is figure out how other people have done it [by] listening to the structure and kind of critiquing it. I think this has really helped me a lot, not just in terms of [the emotional impact], but more I just really love that piece of music. There are emotional parts to [music], but I also think there are also a lot of life skills that come from that.”

The famous opera singer Renee Fleming explores the power of music in bringing back memories, especially from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients. According to Renee Fleming’s website, she advocates for “Music and the Mind,” which is the “study of the powerful connections between the arts and health.” Musical therapy is helpful especially with elders with memory problems and developing children. In addition, this type of therapy is cost effective and widely accessible.

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