By Bill Stieg
The opening chords to “Racing in the Street” still makes the hair on my arms stand up. I first heard Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform this song 31 years ago, so nostalgia is a factor, no doubt.
But every time I hear it, I’m transported, dazzled, exhilarated. There are quivers down my backbone. Such is the power of music over me. And music, whatever you listen to, has a similar hold on nearly all of us — it’s insidious, ubiquitous, and irresistible.
“We’re musical beings,” says Teresa Lesiuk, Ph.D., an assistant professor of music therapy at the University of Miami. “It’s like we’re hardwired for music. We’re ready to take it in, we’re ready to interact with it.”
Moreover, the experts I spoke with — neurologists, musicologists, guitarists — all agree that man is probably exposed to music more frequently now than at any time in history. Companies have been messing with your vulnerable synapses for decades through shopping soundtracks and commercial jingles.
But you too can tap into music’s power (minus the amplifiers and overpriced tickets) if you want to work more efficiently, train harder, think quicker, and maybe even live longer.
1. Waking Up
This morning, a song I liked started playing on the radio. I opened my eyes. My brain was beginning to stir.
Daniel Levitin, Ph.D., a psychology professor at McGill University and the author of This Is Your Brain on Music, tells me I’m off to a good start. (He’s not in my bedroom; we talked by phone.) Music with a beat, he says, leads to a brain process called spreading activation. “That’s a fancy name for when a bunch of neurons start firing at a certain rate, say in response to music, and other neurons that have nothing to do with music start firing in sympathy.”
Indeed, a Japanese study found that people who listened to music after a nap were less sleepy than those who didn’t tune in.
For the first part of my 45-minute commute, I listen to talk radio or news. But eventually I must have music; silence simply won’t do. In fact, Australian research suggests that silence isn’t ideal for driving — it lets you think about things other than driving.
My mix, using the radio and CD changer, is mostly indie and classic rock with the occasional nostalgic wild card, like marching band or Broadway or folk. And that’s what matters for driving, a range of research shows: Within reason, music that makes you feel good is best for alertness, reaction time, and maintaining a safe speed.
Again, the key is “within reason,” since research has also shown that the faster the music, the faster and less safely you’ll drive.
For example, a study from Israel discovered that a lot more speeding, red-light-running, and accidents took place as the tempo of music increased. Similarly, a study from Memorial University of Newfoundland found that drivers listening to hard rock crashed more often on a simulated course than those listening to industrial noise did.
3. Work Productivity
For most of human history, music has been making physical labour — from rowing a Greek galley to ironing clothes — more bearable. But can it help in the white-collar world?
Lesiuk, the University of Miami music therapist, has found that, generally speaking, if people listen to music of their choosing, they can decrease 9-to-5 fatigue, nervousness, and irritability while at the same time enhance their enthusiasm and relaxation. The net effect: They become better problem solvers.
Even a tiny dose of tunes can have an effect. One Italian study found that people who listened to up-tempo music experienced the biggest boost in bloodflow to their brains, compared with when they heard slower tunes or nothing at all.
But Lesiuk believes there’s probably a psychological component, too; people can convince themselves they can’t work as well without a soundtrack. For instance, she’s had IT workers decline to participate in her research because the experiment required that music be shut off for a period of time.
There are exceptions — and I’m one of them. While I’m sure I’m more efficient at physical efforts (like cleaning the house) and visual tasks (like playing around in Photoshop) as music is playing, I can forget about reading or writing in the office. I can’t concentrate.
Lesiuk says hearing lyrics and reading words simultaneously probably divides my attention. She has also found that the more skilled someone is at a task, the better he or she does with music playing. If you’re not skilled, music is just another stimulus that hurts your concentration.
If any place seems to have sprouted more earbuds than the office, it’s the gym.
I used to be a purist, running roads and trails, and even the treadmill, without music. Now I’m less pure and more happy. An upbeat mix loaded into an old Nano makes my runs faster and more pleasant, no question.
This is not news. The link between rocking out and working out has been confirmed on treadmills and stationary bikes; cyclists use less oxygen while pedaling in time with tunes, and runners perceive less effort and have 15 percent greater endurance when matching tempo to stride.
One of the leading researchers in this field is Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., of the sports psychology department at Brunel University in the United Kingdom. He helps organise a half marathon in London called Run to the Beat, during which live bands perform and specially chosen songs are played along the route.
Karageorghis says most athletes benefit from syncing their songs with their intended pace — starting with midtempo tunes, for instance, and then increasing the beat. If you know the music well, he says, you’ll find it easier to push yourself during the most exhilarating passages, since athletes naturally increase effort at these moments. One way music helps us exercise is by diverting our attention, which lowers our level of perceived effort and makes “hard” seem more like “fun,” Karageorghis says.
Similarly, Australian researchers found that distracting free-throw shooters with upbeat music allowed them to perform without negative thoughts interfering, so they made more shots.
I find that when I’m playing golf, I can block memories of bad shots by humming. (And I hum a lot on golf courses.)
5. Your Overall Health
I haven’t been sick since the year 2000. This can probably be attributed to genes, luck, and a wonderful family, but I can’t help but suspect that — you guessed it — music is medicine, too.
A review in the American Journal of Public Health calls music “the most accessible and most researched medium of art and healing.” The review mentions the successful use of music to control pain in cancer patients as well as its role in improving their immune response, decreasing their anxiety, and reducing their psychological and physical symptoms.
In one University of Wisconsin study, heart-attack patients who listened to relaxing music for 20 minutes showed slower heart and respiratory rates and less demand for oxygen — up to 1 hour after listening.
Then there’s this research from the University of Maryland: Music that evokes joy can improve blood-vessel dilation by 26 percent. And scientists in Germany say that singing in a choir boosts immune function — and just listening to choral music lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
I believe it. Around November, I dug out a shoebox of Christmas CDs, and for the next 6 weeks our house sounded like an upscale department store.
There’s a CD of German carols and hymns by a boys’ choir that moves me beyond words, which is fitting because I can’t understand a word they’re singing.
One Canadian study I’ve read refers to the “chills phenomenon” of music; the physical indicators of emotional arousal, such as blood volume pulse and electrodermal activity. Listening to Springsteen does it for me. And so does the choir: My dermis is electrified.
The chills study validates this, charmingly: “Strongly felt emotions could be rewarding in themselves.” I’ll even sing along phonetically, recalling my days in junior-high choir, and can practically feel those blood vessels opening wide.
Image: David Drummond