The power of music

Discussion Question

  • Do you think music has healing powers?
  • What do you know about the role of music in other cultures or religions?
  • Is there an explanation as to why certain songs bring back memories, make us happy, or energize us?

Learn the Words

Music is a universal language. No matter where you are from, nearly everyone has the ability to react to music. It’s a way for humans to connect with each other without even needing to talk. Think about your favorite song and how when you play it, you feel certain emotions or remember specific memories. Maybe the lyrics and upbeat rhythm make you feel happy. Or maybe the slow tempo reminds you of a time when you felt sad. Music can alter your mood, but it can also bring people together, help with concentration, and empower people.

Violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain says that music is powerful not only because it can change how we feel, but because sound passes through our bodies when the ear hears the notes. “When someone says that a piece of music ‘touched me’ or ‘moved me,’ it’s very literal. The sound of my voice enters your ear canal and it’s moving your eardrum. That’s a very intimate act. I am very literally touching you, and when you speak to me, you are literally touching me…” he said. Music is both an emotional and physical experience, and when you listen to happier songs, like OMI and Felix Jaehn’s “Cheerleader,” it’s hard not to smile, or feel uplifted.

Studies show that people unknowingly match their facial expressions to the music being played. In one experiment, researchers found that a participant with no expression would suddenly look happy if the music’s tone was cheerful, or unhappy if the music sounded gloomy. Music releases chemicals in our brains that make us feel certain emotions. This can be seen when a baby smiles or moves to an upbeat song. As soon as the baby hears the music, their brain releases a chemical called Dopamine, which makes them feel good. Even a newborn baby can react to music. When a parent sings to their baby, it helps them to bond and develop a special relationship through the sounds.

Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of a youth orchestra in Venezuela, says that his orchestra brings students from different schools together to sing, play, and coexist. Students come from cities all over the country from Caracas to Barquisimeto. In a similar way, many of the world’s greatest musicians such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and more, got together in 1985 to release the song We are the World to raise money for AIDS relief in Africa and in the U.S. In 2010, a new version, We are the World for Haiti came out to benefit those affected by the Haitian earthquake and help rebuild the country. In most recent version, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Pink, Lil Wayne, and others made an appearance on the recording. For both the Venezuelan orchestra and the famous singers, music is more than just sounds. It’s a way to bring people together to make a difference in someone’s life, and to celebrate each other as people.

In many African tribes, music plays a strong role. Not only does it represent their heritage, but it’s an important part of their culture. Music is especially essential in African dance, and it serves a greater purpose than just a physical activity. In some African cultures, a dance is performed during child naming ceremonies, to welcome someone into the community, agricultural activities, during war times, ceremonies for the dead, and in religious ceremonies. During the performances, the entire community shows up and takes part. When Africans were brought to North and South America and the Caribbean as slaves during the 1500s many different African dance styles merged together, and dancing and music became a way to preserve their culture and traditions. Even though they may have come from different villages or communities, dance and music brought them together to celebrate where they came from.

Music isn’t just a celebration of your background, it’s also a way to help other people. Elizabeth Dunn Kazmierski is a blind musician who started performing at an early age. Now, the 18-year-old is studying music therapy and looking for ways to combine her love of music with helping those with disabilities. Because she can’t rely on her eyesight, her extra strong sense of hearing has helped her become a better composer. Kazmierski spoke at the fundraiser Invest in Ability Dinner where she met other musicians and fellow speaker David Lockington. Lockington said music helped him overcome his tough childhood, and even as a child, he knew music was related to his emotions. “Music is what feelings sound like,” Lockington said, quoting an anonymous source.

Another one of music’s superpowers is that it helps people concentrate. A study at the University of Birmingham, England shows that music can help people be more efficient at tasks such as studying, checking email, completing mindless tasks. Classical or Baroque styles by Mozart and Vivaldi are especially great for studying and helping you concentrate. Researchers in the U.K. discovered that those who listened to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons could focus better, had a stronger memory and were more mentally alert.

For studying or completing mindless tasks, Classical or Baroque music is best, but what about music that can make you feel empowered? When working out, upbeat sounds with a heavier bass are best. Researchers at the Kellogg School of Management found that the level of bass (heavier bass sounds) are more empowering than lighter-bass versions of the same song because humans associate booming sounds with powerful objects or experiences.

From Pink to Kazmierski to Abreu, music has touched everyone from superstars to community leaders to teens. Music is the language everyone can speak. An emotional reaction, better concentration, and a stronger memory comes naturally when you hear a song you love, relate to, or reminds you of certain memories.