The Biology of how Music is good for us at this time
There is uncertainty in the world right now, in what is unprecedented times. If you live alone like me and are socially isolating due to COVID-19, it can be a lonely and stressful time. Particularly for people with mental health issues – and in the male dominated world of audio there is no shame in admitting that. We’ve got to be kind to ourselves, and keep calm and listen to music or HiFi.
I thought ‘Keeping Calm and Carrying On’ had its origins in the Carry on Series – something Sid James was doing with Joan Sims. But then I thought Chav was pronounced ‘Charve’ – shows how middle class I am! But oh no, this poster had its origins in wartime England to boost morale of citizens. That’s why the ‘crown jewels’ is in the picture. So here is why we must listen to music more….
Music releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. A neurotransmitter is a chemical that passes between the ‘synapses’ or space between nerve cells. Have more of it there filling those spaces – just like the effects of feel good Serotonin, and it’s the equivalent of doing the business more.
But it’s not apparently dopamine doing that – it is merely the chemical of reinforcement and reward, for instance when we eat or drink, or just before. The dopamine triggers the action and then that triggers more of it. But this reward and reinforcement applies to music too. So how?
Well, Leonard Meyer – a professor of Music at the University of Chicago, wrote in his 1956 book Emotion and Meaning in Music that music sets up cognitive patterns, making us wonder what comes next. If we are right then it releases other feel good chemicals such as endorphins or adrenaline that provide reinforcement. I suppose this might account why we love the anticipation of what music brings – the first few staccato bars of Mozart’s ‘Elvira Madigan‘ are a clue to the exquisite melody that comes next. Just like when Stromberg’s windows are raised in The Spy Who Loved Me Bond film – you know this Mozart piece coming, particularly given how many repeats of that film we’ve all watched! Of course this anticipatory set up can be extended to all forms of music – not just classical. Although different types of music release different types of brain waves – relaxing music is associated with alpha waves.
Curd Jürgens lets us know of the music to come – The Spy Who Loved Me
And it would be reasonable to pre-suppose, some theorists have hypothesised, that this anticipation is the antecedent of our biological past and evolution. As early humans experiencing rushes of brain chemicals coming after the sound of predators. In our modern day context these sounds of course take on a different meaning which are pleasing to us, using our pre-historic physiology that has made us human – ancient reward circuitry in the brain. So it’s not like Australopithecines enjoying Kraftwerk but because of the processes that have been set up over time to allow us to enjoy such electronica. What is pleasing music is based on societal norms too, of course.
Early Man : Australopithecus and Kraftwerk 3D – not quite!
Effects of Music on Stress & the Stress Response
The hormone cortisol is released as a response to stress by the adrenal glands, situated just above the kidneys and triggered by brain releasing hormones. The bodies way of preparing yourself of the worry of being socially isolated and anxious perhaps, or suffering mental health issues. But this is to aid more sugars to your muscles – the so called ‘fight or flight response’, since cortisol promotes sugars conversion from fats and proteins (a biological process). Our heart rate goes up because cortisol also has a biological effect on the restriction of blood vessels. The same fluid in less space means higher pressure, and that means more of the alerting chemicals flowing around that we need to fight or flight – but unhelpful when we need to relax. But where does music come into reversing this? How does cortisol levels go down?
Well it’s true that not only are levels of cortisol affected by the above pathway, but also what is called the autonomic nervous system – one part is called the sympathetic system (speeding heart rate) and the other the parasympathetic system (slowing heart rate). The reduction in cortisol happens due to alpha waves effects on the parasympathetic system although this is not that well understood. And alpha waves are triggered by some types of music as explained.
In one study it was found that alpha waves, associated with relaxing music, reduces cortisol levels. Reducing cortisol reduces the stress response. This study introduces an interesting idea for us as audiophiles, that the reason we like balanced or tonally rich audio is because it doesn’t stimulate levels of cortisol and therefore we prefer this type of HiFi more. It is certainly an aim of good HiFi for it to be balanced.
Cortisol is high in the morning too due to what is called the ‘Cortisol Awakening Response’ – high levels due to the bodies rhythms for preparedness for activity. Going for your government allowed ‘run, walk, or cycle’, staves off cortisol and a good reason to listen to music in the morning too.
Relaxation in Selling due to COVID-19
Some manufacturers in the UK are relaxing rules on dealers being able to sell products via mail order outside of their locality. I was told Chord Electronics have currently relaxed this rule. Cyrus Audio put out a press release to say that they are offering a 14 day home trial… In the UK, under The Consumer Contracts Regulations (2013), we have 14 days to cancel a contract of sale for products bought online with no chance of visual inspection, for a full refund. These rules apply to Europe too.
With UK customers not having the chance to get to dealers at the moment, the ability to trial at home under this legislation is a welcome shot to consumers and manufacturers to try and keep the market buoyant in these tough times. I’m not sure how this works in the US but one thing is for sure, dealers want sales and if they can loan products out then home trials is a great way for that. And as consumer audiophiles this appeals to the need for trying at home which I always advocate! I have these KEF’s coming soon myself ;
KEF LSX – Terence Conran Special Edition