Music Myths: Can music make you smarter? What about happier?

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Having spent a weekend doing my best impressions of a noughties teenager at Reading Festival 2017 (leaving me with a neck that can barely move from my flailing attempts at hairography), it’s no surprise that my brain has been percolating on some ideas around music.

Because you might be rocking headphones whilst you read this, but does music help with productivity? Does your favourite song really lift your mood? Is it true listening to music can make you smarter? Learn languages faster? Boost your memory? There are dozens of myths about the power of music.

And why wouldn’t there be?

Music certainly exists as something greater than its parts (yes, here is the word-nerd geeky bit).

It inspires, empowers, lifts, breaks, and unites us. Woolf called music, ‘magic’. Nietzsche thought a life without music was a mistake.  Vonnegut wrote that music, above all else, made being alive worthwhile and validated his faith. Plato said, ‘music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything’.

One of the most incredible aspects of music is just how finely tuned our minds are to it. Oliver Sacks, the renown neuroscientist who studied the relationship between the brain and music, demonstrated how nearly every living person with a healthy brain has some appreciation, some emotional understanding of music. He also showed how music can be deeply therapeutic as well as aesthetic in his book, Musicophilia. In this, patients with no other form of expression are able to connect to the world, and others, through music.

And as Sacks pointed out, whilst there is now a huge body of research available for people to derive conclusions about the power of music – whether it makes us smarter, or more emotionally intelligent, or productive – ultimately music is about ‘the richness of the human context’. In other words, yes there are some super exciting neuroscientific insights on what music does for us, but listening to music is like a relationship where you and another are trading pieces of each other, filling in gaps that you didn’t even know were there. We can dissect, we can do brain scans, we cannot break music down entirely.

So with that in mind, what musical myths are true? Are any of them? Or are we all just suckers when it comes to our favourite jams?


1. Music makes us happier

The other day, I put on Taylor Swift’s 1989 for the first time in months (sorry, not sorry) and suddenly the fog that had been hanging over me for weeks dissipated like the sun had come out. Clarity lit up my headspace. Confidence picked me back up. Like my #GIRLBOSS playlist on Spotify, it’s an album I associate with positivity, good vibes, the go-getter, fireball attitude I was learning to own in 2015. And here’s a cool fact: music really does make us happier. In fact, upbeat tunes can have a physiological impact on our bodies so our overall physical and mental wellbeing lifts with the song. Bradt and Dileo (2009) showed that music affects the catchily-named autonomic nervous system (blood pressure and heartbeat) and limbic system (emotions), helping heart disease patients to reduce blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety. Moreover, if you’re actively engaged in the music – singing along for example – then research shows we receive an extra oomph of endorphins that make us feel happier. Nice huh?

2. Music helps with productivity

The workplace is often divided between those who treasure silence and those who love to crank up the office Spotify – and both sides often argue that they ‘work better’ with one or the other. There’s huge amounts of research into whether music helps or hinders productivity. And there’s no simple yes/no answer. Some say that you should listen to music for ten minutes before starting work for the best results. Others say that classical trumps any other genre for helping with concentration. However, it all kind of depends on the situation… Are you in a noisy space? Are you familiar enough with the music? Etc. What has been shown is that during repetitive day-to-day tasks, music can optimise boredom and make you more productive – at least if your choice in music is upbeat and in a major key (happy music = happy mood = happy work). However, if you’re doing something that’s creatively demanding, you may find music more distracting than beneficial. On the other hand, familiar songs absolutely do create a sweet spot for your focus and help you work more effectively. Advice? Test and tweak what works for you – whether that’s ambient rain sounds, rhythmic vibes, or crashing guitars.

3. Music boosts creativity  

All creatives work differently. But their rituals and habits, what helps them ‘get in the zone’, holds huge fascination for many. A central part for me as a writer (like many others) is music. I create playlists for the different characters I write for, order them to try and capture key scenes. Whack one of these lists on and five minutes later I’m there, in media res, whole other worlds fizzbubbling around me as my fingers tip tap into action. But should I be doing this? Does it actually help me write as much as I think it does? Well, yes. It works for me. Since I only have limited time to write each day, music kicks me into action far faster than anything else I’ve tried because of the associations I’ve made with certain playlists. I also find it inspiring, many of my ideas take root because of songs I’ve heard and associate with themes, characters, moods, and experiences – not to mention fishes me out of a slump when that unspeakable creative malady, ‘writers block’, hits. There’s science behind this. Research conducted by Petr Janata shows that music appreciation and memory processing both occur in the medial prefrontal cortex, right behind the forehead, causing our minds to permanently bind music and memory together. However, the influence of music on creativity is entirely individual. It can absolutely feed and steer your imagination but not necessarily in the way you want. Those strong memory cues may feed your ideas or they could melt into distracting daydreams.

4. Music helps your memory

As mentioned, the links between memory and music are inextricable. And who hasn’t their own story of how a song takes them back to a place, a person, a moment? Music can absolutely bring back half forgotten memories, from the bittersweet and heartbroken to comforting hours spent with family and friends. This is why Sacks and other scientists have used music as a way of reaching those with diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Learning an instrument takes it a step further with research showing that musicians have slower cognitive declines compared to non-musicians, and the ability to appreciate and play music being one of the last abilities to leave Alzheimer patients. During exams, music can also certainly help with memory – for instance, whilst revising you could play certain songs to create associations to help you recall more information. Of course, it’s likely that much of that positive effect is that music elevates your mood (yey dopamine) and you’re less stressed about revising in the first place.

5. Music makes you smarter

You may have heard of the pop psychology phrase ‘the Mozart Effect’. This refers to a theory that made a lot of people very excited in the 90s after a piece of research was published on how spatial awareness improved after listening to Mozart. Cue the Chinese whispers and suddenly you have expectant parents trying to make their unborn spawn smart by playing them Mozart whilst in the womb. The real science behind music and cognitive development is actually far more interesting, albeit less of a headline that ‘Mozart made my sprogling smart’. For instance, if you were pushed through music lessons as a child, your parents and teachers were doing you a massive favour. Learning an instrument means that as an adult you’re likelier to have a higher academic IQ, made you better at maths, manage anxiety better, improved your working memory and ability to learn languages, and much much more. Studies show that this is because music helps bolster the same five skills that underlie language acquisition, namely: “phonological awareness, speech-in-noise perception, rhythm perception, auditory working memory and the ability to learn sound patterns.” So maybe if you’re thinking of having kids, maybe also start thinking about what instrument you can tolerate listening to through those ear-shattering early grade years.


What does the thescribblebug listen to?

Here are some of my Spotify lists as mentioned above. What music gets you going? What sets your heart on fire or keeps you going during a dingy day in the office? Let me know in the comments!

AND RISE ABOVE (#GIRLBOSS) – the list for the girl boss within all of us. It’s all I need on busy work days to find my groove. No heartbreak here, it’s all about empowerment and the army of me (or you).

RENEGADE EARTH (Laras List) – Laras Nikolao is my favourite character to write for because he’s such a walking ball of contradictions. You can absolutely hear it in the songs that sink me into his head.

DONTKILLMYVIBE – an easy, somewhat psychedelic playlist of electronic rock, synth pop and dance-oriented tracks for those days when I need to block out distractions, find some zen, and feel the beat.

xPHTx – this one may have started as a bit of a joke but now it’s a great place to find those positive hardcore vibes on tricky days.

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