I don’t need to tell you that music is powerful. You’ve likely experienced its influence yourself. Music is the soundwaves of emotion, or at least it feels that way. Music literally affects us on a cellular level. It also affects our brains in spectacular ways. Cultures worldwide, from thousands of years ago to the present, have used music—especially with rhythmic patterns—to induce altered states of consciousness for all sorts of culturally ritualistic reasons.

An altered state of consciousness is when our typical mental state changes, which can alter our awareness and how we think, feel, and perceive things. Often, this state is brought about by things like medication, recreational drugs, or trauma, but research has found that music can be added to the list.

Music’s Relationship With Our Brain

Scientists are thankfully just as eager, if not more so, to understand the impactful relationship our species has with music, and they have collectively discovered a butt-load of discoveries that reveal music’s impact on us – which goes even deeper than we imagined. I don’t have the space, and you don’t have the time for me to run through everything scientists have learned about music’s influence on us, but I will share some remarkable things about its effects on our brains.

To put it simply, extensive research into which parts of the brain respond to music shows that music activates many brain regions and networks simultaneously—so many, in fact, that participating in social activities is the only other situation that compares.

Scientists have found that music’s journey through our brains begins by activating our auditory cortex in our temporal lobes near our ears. From there, music synchronizes brain function in our limbic system or emotional center. Research also shows that, intriguingly, music activates our motor systems — which some suggest helps us pick out the music’s beat.

The University of Central Florida has a fantastic resource that offers a simple, visual, and interactive way to show music’s influence on twelve brain regions. I encourage you to play around with it if you want a more technical breakdown, but beyond our auditory cortex and our limbic system, music also affects our:

  • Broca’s area, which enables us to speak and enunciate our words.
  • The Cerebellum, which helps store our physical memories and coordinates movement.
  • The Corpus callosum allows communication between the two brain hemispheres.
  • Our Frontal lobe lets us think and make decisions or plans.
  • The Hypothalamus does a whole lotta things, including regulating our thirst, appetite, mood, heart rate, sleep, metabolism, sex drive, body temperature, and metabolism. Oh, it also links our nervous and endocrine systems.
  • Nucleus Accumbens is who we have to thank for releasing dopamine.
  • The Occipital lobe processes what we see. Music activates the occipital lobe in musicians even when they aren’t playing music, whereas non-musicians, like me, use the auditory region in the temporal lobe.
  • Your Putamen regulates your body movements and coordination and processes rhythm.
  • And Wernicke’s area helps us understand spoken and written language.

After scientists learned how widespread the effects of music on the brain are, they turned their attention to studying how music affects brain activity, specifically, the behavior of our brain waves while listening to music. One study from 2020, published in the journal NeuroImage, monitored the brain activity of a musician (specifically, a violinist) as they played, and their audience as they listened, and found the brain activity between them synchronized. Further, the researchers found that the greater the synchronicity, the more the audience enjoyed the performance.

Now, it seems that music's effects on brain activity synchronicity can also put us in a trance-like state – just like humans have observed and experienced for thousands of years.

New Research

Considering the long history our species has with using music, specifically rhythm, to achieve trance-like states, scientists decided to investigate the connection using modern technology. Such is the case of a small new study published on BioRxiv. It hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, but it suggests that our millennia of observation are correct—music can indeed induce a trance state of altered consciousness.

Predoctoral Researcher in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Barcelona in Spain, Raquel Aparicio Terrés, was particularly interested in the effects music seems to have on our conscious state and wondered whether a phenomenon called entrainment has something to do with it. Brainwave entrainment occurs when the neurons in our brain synchronize with an external rhythmic stimulus – like drumbeats… or electronic music, which happens to be the genre the researchers used for the study.

Aparicio Terrés and her colleagues recruited 19 participants between 18 and 22 years old. Then had them listen to one-minute clips of six different electronic music tracks with tempos of either 1.65 hertz, 2.25 Hz, or 2.85 Hz—for reference, a tempo of 1.65 Hz is 99 beats per minute. While the participants listened, the researchers looked for signs of entrainment using electroencephalography (EEG), which uses superficial electrodes atop the participants’ heads to measure the electrical activity in their brains.

Between each track, the participants engaged in cognitive tasks and completed questionnaires to assess their perception of their conscious states after listening to the music.

The results showed synchronization between the participants’ brain activity and all three music tempos, but it was most prominent when they listened to music clips at 1.65 Hz—which coincides with when the participants reported feeling the most unity afterward.

While more research is needed, this is one of a growing list of studies investigating the entrainment in the brain and its effects on our consciousness. It also aligns with some ideas that author and visiting research fellow at Aalborg University, in Denmark, Jonathan Weinel, discusses in his 2018 book, Inner Sound

In it, Weinel explores how musicians’ subjective experiences of altered states of consciousness have influenced the creation of electronic music and other audiovisual media over the years. He also proposes that sound could theoretically be used to simulate different states of subjective consciousness in a person.

Perspective Shift

I do my best writing when I’m listening to instrumental music. It’s a strange experience, really. My brain can’t keep anything straight without music, and I’m easily distracted. I’m lucky to write 500 words (this article is 1,238 words) without getting up.

But when I listen to any of the writing playlists I’ve compiled – which includes some electronic music – I can slip into a nearly trance-like state and write thousands of words without moving. Half the time, I’m not even looking at my screen but staring off in the distance as my fingers type away. Most of the time, I think I’m writing gibberish and am actually surprised by the coherency of my words when I read them back.

Perhaps the research we discussed today about music’s influence on us has something to do with it. Regardless, I’m amazed by how much scientists are learning about our connection with music. To me, music is like novels—it transports us into someone else’s subjective life experience and taps into something intangible yet tangible beyond our physical reality.

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