Why do we feel good through music?

psychology: The power of music

The Power of Music - Page 1

The woman in the yellow dress stands alone on the big stage in front of the dark hall. In the orchestra pit below, Ivan Repušić gently lifts the baton, the sounds of flutes rise. Then Karolina Andersson's clear soprano voice sets in, and suddenly longing and delight seem almost palpable. It's an ordinary Thursday evening at the Komische Oper in Berlin. Is played Rigoletto , like many thousands of times in the world. The audience is restless at first, but now, with Gilda's famous aria in the first act, it is as quiet as a mouse. Even the whispering school class and the constant cough fall silent. The singing rises higher and higher, questioning, complaining, and finally in irrepressible jubilation.

Not far away, in a hall on the outskirts, Christoph Schneider makes a quick fuss over his drums. Bass and electric guitar are added, roaring through the hall. Schneider grins and falls into a dull, pounding four-four time. An instant jerk goes through the small group of listeners, they move almost synchronously to the beat. When the singer enters the stage, his arms fly up, the chorus echoes the singing from all throats. Rammstein, one of the most successful bands in Germany, are rehearsing their songs with the evil lyrics for their next big tour. The band tests their coarse, hard sound, which will soon send tens of thousands into a thunderous frenzy.

Two styles of music that couldn't be more different. And yet the two concerts give an impression of how melodies and rhythms can cast a spell over us.

There are probably few things that can fill us with happiness in such a simple way, that are so present and have such a great impact on our lives as music. In films it is often only a soulful melody that lets the viewer immerse into a love scene, while a fast beat makes the pulse skyrocket in a chase. While cooking, we snap to the beat of pop songs from the radio. We chat with friends in the pub, while jazz in the background creates a casual, relaxed atmosphere. Those who jog can be driven by their favorite pieces. With the right songs, a long drive in the car becomes bearable, and a bad day becomes a good one. And when small children wake up from a nightmare screaming, the only thing that can help is a gentle lullaby.



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For some time now, doctors, therapists and educators have also been using the power of sound: music can alleviate pain, evoke memories, overcome psychological barriers and enable communication. The secret of rhythms and melodies is now also occupying neuroscientists, psychologists and evolutionary researchers who are trying to explain the development of the brain and the incarnation: Where does the irresistible pull that some sounds exert on us come from? Why do certain melodies and harmonies touch us while others leave us cold? Music, it turns out, works on all levels of the brain, it has direct access to emotions and is deeply anchored in human history. Created in a miraculous co-evolution, music helps us to reconcile us with age-old emotional needs in a world that is primarily shaped by language and intellect.

Music is so common and familiar that we often don't ask ourselves an obvious question: How is it that people in all known cultures and since the beginning of human history have created complicated patterns from sound waves? How could you explain the human passion for rhythms and melodies to an extraterrestrial visitor? Is music an expression of cosmic laws of nature or is it a specifically human invention? The answer must be: both at the same time. Because of the many natural noises that reach our ears, we perceive some as tones, and they already contain a fundamental structure of music.

Tones always arise when particularly simple objects such as membranes or strings start to vibrate and only generate a few frequencies that are in a simple, clearly structured relationship to one another. The entire vibration energy is then in these few frequencies, which is why they produce clear, widely audible signals. We usually only perceive the lowest frequency consciously, but the others always resonate as overtones and determine the timbre, for example the difference between a violin and a trumpet. The first overtone is always at twice the frequency of the fundamental. If you hear a second tone, the fundamental tone of which vibrates at this double frequency, then everyone perceives these two tones as amazingly similar - they sound an octave apart.

The fact that sounds become music is thanks to the enormous analytical power of the brain: it seems to effortlessly assign a complicated mixture of sound waves to individual instruments and voices and recognize musical phrases and motifs in them. This performance is not performed by a specialized "music center", rather different areas of the entire brain work together here.

Researchers are increasingly studying the use of music as medicine

And that happens early - in the womb. The psychologist Alexandra Lamon from Keele University in Great Britain proved it in an experiment in which mothers over and over again listened to the same piece of music during the last three months of pregnancy - a composition by Mozart or Vivaldi, a Reggae song or a pop song from the top charts . After the birth, the mothers were not allowed to play this piece to their children for a year. In a sophisticated test arrangement, Alexandra Lamon was then able to prove that the one-year-old children like this piece of music better than other, similar pieces.

It doesn't take much time for a child's brain not only to classify music from the outside, but also to create it itself. How well this works for three-year-olds can be seen in Ava. The girl is sitting in her room amidst scattered toys and first reaches for her puzzle. But then you look at a picture book with children's songs. Ava leaves the puzzle, takes the book. She hums to herself as she turns the pages, then suddenly she sees a familiar picture, a melody comes to mind. Timidly, she starts lisping: "A cuckoo on a tree ..." In some places she becomes unsure, doesn't quite hit the note, but the melody is unmistakable. The chorus "Simsalabimbambasaladusaladim" then goes really fast.

What Ava trains with so much enthusiasm here is the intervals with which Western music divides an octave into a scale. One particularly popular interval is practiced: the third, which is predominant in many nursery rhymes. Ava's mother soon gets bored with the song, she turns the pages and sings a new one. Ava quickly gets a rattle and beats the beat, still imprecise, but full of zeal and highly concentrated.

The curiosity and the joy of melodies and rhythms are clearly noticeable, just like bright colors, shapes, words and stories they exert an irresistible pull on children. Ava will soon find a wrong note in a familiar song similar to a nonsensical word in a spoken sentence. By the age of eight or nine she will have developed a sense of harmony. This already lays the foundations for Verdi's melodies as well as for the rough sound of Rammstein - which music will touch your heart depends on a variety of factors, for example what attitude towards life and to which group of friends you attracted as a teenager will feel.

Apart from patients with rare neurological diseases, everyone has this feeling for music: everyone is fundamentally musical. We can all easily transpose simple melodies into different keys without understanding the concept of key - that is, sing the same melody starting from a different keynote. The neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin from the Canadian McGill University has also shown that laypeople also have a far better musical memory than they are aware of. He asked non-musicians to sing their favorite song - only pieces that had been recorded in a fixed key were evaluated. Although the 40 test subjects protested and said of themselves that they couldn't sing at all and certainly couldn't keep a note, the recordings showed that they like pieces Billie Jean by Michael Jackson or Like a virgin surprisingly faithfully reproduced by Madonna. Even without perfect pitch, they sang the selected songs almost at the original pitch and almost at the exact tempo. "It sounded as if the test subjects were singing along to the recording - we hadn't played them to them at all," writes Levitin in his book The musical instinct .

The experiment shows how much music can be imprinted on the brain, often at a very early stage. This is also the case with the many outstanding Asian musicians who have developed a sensitivity for European music: They grew up with this music from childhood - the music of their own culture only played a subordinate role for them. It is different with people in Indonesia, for example, who have so far had nothing to do with Western music: Europeans who live in Jakarta do their local neighbors acoustic pain when they play a Beethoven symphony out loud. On the other hand, an Indian or Indonesian composition inevitably seems strange to us - we have never practiced the different scales in the form of children's songs.

Neuroscientists have also recognized the influence of music on our brain. The German neuroscientist Stefan Koelsch, for example, was able to show in studies that happy pieces of music such as the Allegro from Bachs Fourth Brandenburg concert or an Irish dance style that reduced the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood of patients - they needed less of the anesthetic propofol during an operation.

Because of these and other effects, researchers are increasingly investigating the use of music as medicine. After a stroke or brain trauma, some people learn to coordinate their movements again with a therapist at the piano. Tinnitus patients can use specially edited music to help get rid of the mysterious whistling and ringing in their ears. In people with Alzheimer's disease or other dementias, singing together can alleviate behavioral disorders such as aggression, and the right music can bring back buried memories and give life an emotional hold. Music seems so closely interwoven with our biography that it remains as an emotional core even when other parts of the personality are already crumbling and memories are fading.

The effect on human intelligence is controversial

Music can even shape brain structures. With professional musicians, such changes are particularly visible on brain scans. For example, the so-called bar that connects the two halves of the brain is much thicker, especially if the musicians started taking lessons on the instrument before they were seven years old. In some parts of the cerebral cortex, an increase in gray matter can also be detected in amateur musicians, which indicates an enlargement of the nerve cells or more intensive interconnection.

So it is not surprising that music is even said to promote intelligence - at least since an experiment that the American psychologist Frances Rauscher carried out together with colleagues in the nineties, the result of which has become known as the "Mozart Effect". Rauscher tested college students, one of which was a group of Mozart's for ten minutes Sonata for two pianos in D major while the other group was asked to relax without music. Immediately afterwards, the students in the Mozart group achieved significantly higher scores in an intelligence test, at least when it came to spatial imagination.

Since that experiment, the effect of music on intelligence has been studied many times - albeit with different and contradicting results. The neuropsychologist Lutz Jäncke summarizes in his book Does music make you smart? summarizes the data and sums up that the Mozart effect in its original interpretation must be shelved. So music doesn't automatically make you smarter.

But maybe it is the type of music and its emotional impact that influence our performance. In the first movement of the Mozart symphony, for example, the notes bubble in virtuoso up and down; Energy and joie de vivre almost overflow. Who is not in an excited, happy mood after this music? And it is a well-known fact that cognitive performance also depends on arousal and emotions.

Can we improve our thinking and other functions by just choosing the right music and thus evoking positive feelings? Basically everyone who gets a little or bigger kick out of the day with the right song does a certain self-treatment. The German competitive swimmer Paul Biedermann, for example, gets the hard metal sound in the right mood for the fight for the decisive hundredth of a second: "Metal makes me aggressive in a positive way, helps me to push my limits. The faster and harder the song, the more better." The athlete particularly remembered the song fire-free von Rammstein: "That went through my head during the races at the World Championships in Rome 2009" - Biedermann won gold there and set a new world record.

Because of its mood-enhancing effect, music is even being tried out as a means for the systematic treatment of depression. For example, a study by the National University of Singapore showed that people in retirement homes suffered less from depression if they were played their favorite music for half an hour a day.

But as broad and varied as the effects of music are, it is sometimes difficult to achieve reproducible results with such treatments and to derive fixed therapy guidelines from them. "Similar to aspirin, Mozart can also work against headaches, but this effect is not reliable," says André Klinkenstein, who currently heads the private institute for music therapy in Berlin. "The piece that makes us happy today can make us sad tomorrow," says the therapist, who also plays bass and guitar in the "Kreuzberg-Terzett".

Nevertheless, at the child and adolescent psychiatry in the Martin Gropius Hospital in Eberswalde, he uses the emotional effects of music - for example in people who suffer from severe psychosomatic symptoms. He remembers a 16-year-old girl who kept complaining of pain in her neck, head, stomach and back. The ambitious youngster was convinced that she didn't need any help at all. Klinkenstein exposed her to so-called regulatory music therapy and confronted her in regular sessions for ten minutes each with intense, comparatively strange, unknown music, such as classical music or the spherical sounds of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. In this form of therapy, patients are asked to listen to their sensations and thoughts while listening to music with their eyes closed, and then talk to the therapist about them.

Therapists use music to compensate for deficits

"Music is a strong counterpart that challenges us emotionally in a wide variety of ways," says Klinkenstein. "This makes our inner defense permeable, and unpleasant emotional components can be perceived and allowed." In this way, a deep-seated anger emerged in the 16-year-old patient: "She was furious with God and the world, felt downright disgust for her life," says Klinkenstein. Only in the course of therapy did she manage to cry and finally come to terms with the problematic relationship with her mother.

Music can not only convey emotions, but also enable communication without words. "Music therapy is primarily indicated when people cannot speak," says Karin Schumacher, professor at the music therapy center at the University of the Arts in Berlin. Above all, she explores the possibilities of coming into contact with autistic children through elementary, improvised music and promoting their interpersonal skills. But other people can also be made to speak in this way, such as demented patients or those who have lost the ability to speak due to a traumatic brain injury or a stroke. "We even try to reach coma patients with music," says Schumacher.

A lack of communication can have a particularly sensitive impact on the development of young children. For this reason, the therapists at the KunstMusikRäume in Berlin-Kreuzberg have been using a new method for some time to compensate for deficits with the help of music. In the therapeutic facility, a small team of specialized music therapists looks after children whose educators and teachers no longer know what to do in view of massive developmental delays and behavioral problems and who are referred here by the youth welfare office. The center of the practice is a bright, wide room with a large drum in the middle, which is surrounded by cushions. Various, mostly simple instruments hang on the walls, and there is a piano in the corner. When two-year-old Paul * comes in with his mother, they both sit down on the floor. Paul is here because it is almost impossible for him to break away from his mother even for a short time and to turn to other things. The therapist Kathrin Vogt sits down next to them, strikes the strings of her guitar and sings an improvised song: "Hello, Paul, hello, Paul, what's there?" At first the little boy's gaze wanders aimlessly around the room. He hugs his mother's lap. When she raises Paul's arms, Vogt pauses in her song, there is a short, dramatic pause. Only when the hands of mother and child sink down does she move on to the next note. A short smile crosses the boy's face. Encouraged by the funny effect, he raises his arms again, this time on his own initiative - and again the therapist pauses. Again and again she reacts to the smallest impulses, commenting on the behavior of mother and child with guitar and singing, while they come together for joint actions.

Six months later, the hesitant beginning has turned into a hilarious game in which the boy runs enthusiastically across the room. "Paul's problems stem from the fact that the mother has so far reacted very cautiously and insecurely and was unable to respond appropriately to the signals from her child," explains the therapist.

With such disturbances in the mother-child relationship, Kathrin Vogt triggers something that normally happens early in the child's development. Parents use onomatopoeic exaggerations in their language to try to attract their baby's attention and establish communication. "The music has many elements of this early baby language," says Vogt. "I use it to bring mother and child into contact and synchronize their actions and feelings." The concept developed by the two German psychotherapists Katrin Stumptner and Cornelia Thomsen will soon also be taught at the Berlin University of the Arts.

The Canadian psychologist Sandra Trehub, who studied the interaction of toddlers and mothers and their baby language for a long time, even suspects that this onomatopoeic way of speaking has an origin in music. And the American anthropologist Dean Falk sees this as proof of the common roots of language and music: As the brains of the early hominids grew larger, babies were increasingly immature so that their heads could still pass through the birth canal. While newborn monkeys can cling to their mothers' fur, the pre-humans, according to Falk, had to develop a way of calming their child acoustically. If they kept in contact with the infant by purring and cooing, it was easier for them to put down an awake child and had their hands free, according to the theory.

Certainly mankind developed music long before agriculture, some finds of bone flutes are older than 30,000 years. The division into musicians and passive listeners is a comparatively new development. For much of human history, music has been mostly a communal experience, often associated with dance. Music could have strengthened the feeling of togetherness among tribal groups at an early stage. The psychologist Robin Dunbar from the University of Liverpool argues that even early hominids bathed their brains in exhilarating endorphins by making music and dancing together - as an equivalent to the mutual lousing of monkeys, which leads to a dopamine release in the brain and thus social structures solidifies. According to Dunbar, music nowadays closes the "endorphin gap" that has arisen since the emergence of the more intellectual communication through language.

Clear examples of the thesis can also be found in the middle of a modern city.

Five, six, seven, eight ", counts Be van Vark, then the graceful woman begins a series of steps. The small group of ninth graders follows her hesitantly, clumsily. In the cultural workshop Schlesische27 in Berlin-Kreuzberg, the choreographer works intensively for a week with students from Otto- Hahn School in Neukölln. It is one of those schools that, with 80 percent of students of foreign origin, repeatedly make negative headlines in the press. "Half of the class is on the same level as third- or fourth-graders," he complains Class teacher.

Music uses ancient mechanisms of our psyche

The students who learn the first dance steps on Monday morning seem rather listless at first. Inhibited and uncoordinated, almost embarrassed, they follow the choreographer. When she then puts on a fast beat and performs the same steps again, some of them get a little more life, their movements become increasingly synchronous. At the end of the week, the students present themselves to a small audience - as a group: They represent the planets of the solar system in several sequences. The performance begins hesitantly, but then the 80s hit can be heard Venus the British girl group Bananarama. A schoolgirl enters the room, wrapped in a robe, and suddenly the shy girl turns into a diva for a moment, she throws her head back and waves a boy over with a self-confident gesture. Shortly afterwards it whirls to the sounds of Gustav Holsts' orchestral suite The Planets through the room, performs wild, almost graceful jumps. It is pure happiness that can be admired there.

"I chose the music consciously because it is completely foreign at first," explains Be van Vark. At first, the students would not have been able to classify them at all. "But if you listen to a piece of music a hundred times in a week, you inevitably develop a relationship with it, and in the end everyone really wanted a CD." The class teacher raved about the project: "Most of the time our students find no way to express themselves. The week here is like winning the lottery for us. In a project like this, they discover skills they never thought they could do would have. "

New support for the thesis of music as a producer of happiness is provided by a work by neuroscientist Valori Salimpoor from the Canadian McGill University. She was recently able to visualize the goosebumps that music sometimes creates with the help of imaging processes in the brain. For the experiment, the test subjects brought along those favorite pieces that gave them particularly pleasant shivers. The selection ranged from Adagio for strings from the American composer Samuel Barber to Led Zeppelins Moby Dick . The study showed that in the most intense moments, the nucleus accumbens in the subjects' brains was literally flooded with dopamine. This developmentally old brain region is part of the reward system that gives us a feeling of wellbeing when eating, having sex or using drugs.

The experiment also showed that the music lovers in the brain scanner a few seconds before the greatest feeling of well-being, a related brain structure, the caudate nucleus, was considered with an even larger dopamine output. This region is responsible for expectations, for example when the smell of food makes our mouth water.

Music uses ancient mechanisms of our psyche and plays the entire range of human motivation. However, humans can also be imagined without music. The cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker therefore once called music "acoustic cheesecake". Just as cheesecake satisfies human preferences for sugar and fat, music is a product of chance that fuels our pleasure centers. American psychologist Gary Marcus of New York University has a similar opinion: "I don't think we are born with an instinct for music. We are born with a whole range of skills that make us receptive to music, but that is true also for video games. "

The American neurobiologist Mark Chanzini describes music as a "cultural symbiont" that makes use of the basic abilities of the brain. Humans have always been dependent on interpreting acoustic signals from the environment. Music first got into people's brains because the sound structures imitated emotionally significant noises in nature - especially the steady rhythm of a person walking. But then the symbiote developed further together with the human being - and thus, together with other cultural skills such as language, established human existence in the first place.

As intellectually appealing as such theories may be, we will probably not fully grasp the fascination, the magic of music. How do musical ideas arise that then begin their triumphal march around the world and sometimes become immortal? "We have a gift for creating these martial, majestic sounds," says Rammstein drummer Christoph Schneider. "When there are visitors" - that's what the band members call the magical moment when a new piece is created that will captivate their fans. "We always know immediately, when we have such a goosebumps moment, then nothing can be changed."

Giuseppe Verdi can no longer comment on the source of his inspiration, but his impact over the centuries has brought him as close as possible to immortality. "His music sounds so simple, and yet Verdi is so deep, so rich, every note has something to tell," enthuses Ivan Repušić after he ended by Rigoletto received the thunderous applause of the opera audience in Berlin. The young conductor from Croatia struggles for words for a moment. "Something that you cannot describe, what you can only feel - that is music."