Classical music, whether you love it or hate it, has been a powerful cultural force for centuries. While it no longer dominates the music scene, the argument for continued appreciation of the genre goes far beyond pure aural aesthetics. Classical music has been lauded for its ability to do everything from improve intelligence to reduce stress, and despite some exaggeration of its benefits, science shows us that it actually does have a marked effect on the brain in a number of positive ways.
With September being Classical Music Month, there’s no better time to learn a bit more about some of the many ways classical music affects the brain. Over the past few decades, there have been numerous studies on the brain’s reaction to classical music, and we’ve shared the most relevant, interesting, and surprising here, some of which may motivate you to become a classical aficionado yourself.
- Emotional expression in music and speech affect the brain similarly.
Music is a very strong form of emotional communication across all cultures, but why? Research may have the answer. Studies show that music, including classical arrangements, has the ability to send chills down your spine or make your heart swell with joy through its use of different musical modes. For example, in Western music, the major mode is associated with excited, happy emotions, the minor with sad emotions. Similar results were found in other cultures around the world despite differences in the emotions that these cultures associate with the varying modes. The reason these musical modes have the ability to convey so much emotion is because they imitate the tonal characteristics of emotion in the voice, tapping into our innate communicative abilities and our cultural associations alike.
- Classical music can help reduce pain and anxiety.
Certain medical procedures aren’t especially pleasant to undergo, leaving patients feeling uncomfortable and anxious. Music, research suggests, can be a helpful remedy. Researchers at Duke Cancer Institute found that wearing noise-canceling headphones playing classical music (in this case concertos by Bach) reduced the pain and anxiety of a prostate biopsy. Generally, the procedure causes a spike in diastolic blood pressure as the result of stress and anxiety, but in the men who listened to the music, there was no such spike. Additionally, those who wore headphones reported significantly less pain associated with the procedure. Researchers believe that this method will be an inexpensive way to help make this and other medical procedures less frightening for patients by altering their mental and physical responses to them through use of classical music.
- Classical music can lower blood pressure.
Whether you choose Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart, classical music can have a marked effect on your stress levels and in turn your blood pressure. A University of San Diego study compared changes in blood pressure in individuals who were asked to listen to classical, jazz, or pop selections. Those who listened to classical music had significantly lower systolic blood pressure levels after the experiment when compared to participants who heard no music at all or were assigned to other musical styles.
- Classical music can heighten and arouse emotions.
Tolstoy once said, “Music is the shorthand of emotion,” and research is showing that he just might be right, especially with regard to classical music. A study done at Southern Methodist University in 2001 asked students to relay the most significant event or experience in their lives while listening to either silence or classical music in the background. Researchers found that the classical music affected not only the emotional response and the kinds of emotional language used, but also affected the topics participants chose to disclose, promoted greater expression, and actually caused an increase in the pleasure participants got from listening to classical music. This research is not only interesting from an academic standpoint but could also have real-world applications for therapists and counselors who need to get patients to relax, disclose experiences, and get in touch with troubling emotions.
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