The language of emotions. How music speaks to our brain

As we learn more and more about the brain, we began to understand how music speaks to our brain and how it, in turn, affects our emotions.

Man has always had the need to communicate with his fellows, and it is for this purpose that he felt the need to create an emotional relationship with them. For this reason, the need arose to give life to language, the most complex communication system of any animal species, the ability of man to communicate and express himself by means of articulated sounds, organized in words, to identify images and to distinguish relationships according to implicit conventions, various in time and space.

 The forms of language

Language and music are universal in that they belong to all cultures and are forms of communication unique to the human species. If language is a rational form of communication, music is based on emotional communication, and between these forms there is a fundamental difference.

The “Rational language” is a type of coded communication that allows us to communicate with one’s own similar, even complex information, about the reality and the relationships between individuals. It is based on a system of shared codes that can only be decoded by those who know the key. A foreigner, for example, will not be able to understand our language.

In addition to the actual language, the communication that uses this code is often enriched with emotional content that increases its effectiveness, for example, the tone used in pronouncing a word.

The “emotional language” instead has a universal value. This is typical of all the arts and perhaps in a particular way of music. It is a language that is not subject to rules of which we are rationally aware, and its coding may not always be objective and unambiguous.

The language of sounds

 In general we can say that we all understand the meaning of cheerful or sad music and, depending on its characteristics, it has the same effect on us. Take for example a lullaby that at every latitude of the world, with its slow and relaxing rhythm, helps mothers to get their children to sleep.

 Every type of sound, whether it is part of the spoken language or of the musical one, is characterized by height, duration, intensity, and timbre, all parameters that have the same effect on the expressivity of a phrase whether it is linguistic or musical. Often music and language make similar use of these effects, for example a sad phrase will be pronounced slowly as well as a slow music will give us a sense of sadness.

We can say that musicians communicate emotions using an acoustic code derived from innate neural programs for the expression of vocal emotions. In this way, music can be considered a higher form of language that transforms feelings into something audible.

How music speaks to our brain

 You surely happened, while listening to a song, to beat its rhythm with your foot with a certain cadence. By changing the rhythm of the melody, it will also change that of our foot and it has been shown that it will also change that of our mental connections.

Some tracks can realize specific states of mind such as calm and serenity, conditions that allow the potential of our brain to be exploited to the maximum.

 The moment we listen to music, our body produces an effect similar to that of taking a psychoactive drug that causes the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine’s task is to exercise control over movement, attention and learning, certain aspects of cognitive function, pleasure sensation, and sleep mechanism. In short, to induce a certain brain mechanism.

The effects produced by music

 But the effect of music is not only on emotions, but has been shown to be able to also affect the cardiovascular system, heart rate and blood pressure.

In some cases it can give energy, in others it can be used to relax. The different musical genres and styles, in fact, are able to cause very different effects in those who listen to them.

In general we can say that classical and meditative music works in reducing stress and pain, while rhythmic music has beneficial effects in increasing concentration, motivation and improving mood.

Besides a general speech it is also necessary to take into account the most subjective aspects, namely personal tastes as a result of which, for example, a subject can be annoyed by listening to classical music and have more benefits in terms of relaxation from listening to new age music.

Right hemisphere, left hemisphere

 Listening to music brings pleasure, brings back memories, creates emotions, and helps us to share them with those around us.

A process that seems absolutely natural, almost obvious, but actually sets in motion a complex mechanism.

It must be said that the answer that our brain provides to musical stimuli does not depend only on the sounds themselves but also on a wealth of knowledge that we have acquired. The reaction will also be conditioned by our musical skills, by what we have heard previously and which has been stored in our memories, by the emotions we have experienced, and which we now associate with different musical stimuli.

Let’s see how our brains behave when we listen to a song. Sound is a physical phenomenon. It is the sensation produced by the vibration of a body in oscillation that propagates in the air. When we listen to a song the listening phase is divided into two parts. Initially, it activates the phase of hearing which is a peripheral phenomenon tied to the ear and the acoustic nerve. Secondly, passing through the thalamus, sound reaches the temporal lobe and from here it involves our nervous system with its own psychic functions. At this point, it is said that the musical sound was “intellectualized”.

Now our brain is able to distinguish language from music so that, during listening, it acts by using two separate neural systems for the recognition of melody and for the meaning of words.

How the two hemispheres influence our abilities

When we listen to a song, the two hemispheres of the brain are activated. The left one (which deals with the logic part) focuses on the language, the right one (which manages the most intuitive functions) on the musical part, creating connections between them. The right part of the brain activates the imagination, giving life to the most different emotions, while the left part analyzes aspects such as the structure and the words of the song.

Interestingly, some studies have found that musicians perceive music in two different ways depending on the intentions behind their listening. If they want to get carried away by the sound, they will listen, unconsciously, with the right hemisphere. If instead, they want to analyze the melody from a technical point of view, the left hemisphere will take over.

Both hemispheres benefit from music. If we concentrate more on the left side, these will manifest themselves in the improvement of the memory, of the motricity, of the sense of the rhythm, of the body coordination. But if we focus more on the right side, we will achieve greater imagination development, improved creativity, and greater harmony.

This  article was originally published in Annalisa’s newly released book La mente in musica.

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