Relax! Your Brain Likes This Song


Well, that caught my attention, as absolutes in titles tend to do. “Who is this band with the audacity to claim such a thing?” Turns out, scientists were involved. I read on.

According to the Telegraph, this “eight minute track, called Weightless, is so effective at inducing sleep it should not be listened to while driving.”1

Marconi Union band members, Richard Talbot, Jamie Crossley and Duncan Meadows.

Marconi Union band members, Richard Talbot, Jamie Crossley and Duncan Meadows.

A three member band from Manchester, Marconi Union, collaborated with sound therapists to compose Weightless using a guitar, a piano, and electronic sound bites of the natural environment.  The musicians’ carefully arranged music slows the listener’s heart rate, reduces blood pressure and lowers levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. 1

I find myself wondering, “How can music affect my brain like that?” It’s almost creepy.

“The harmonic intervals – or gaps between notes – have been chosen to create a feeling of euphoria and comfort. And there is no repeating melody, which allows your brain to completely switch off because you are no longer trying to predict what is coming next. Instead, there are random chimes, which helps to induce a deeper sense of relaxation. The final element is the low, whooshing sounds and hums that are like Buddhist chants. High tones stimulate but these low tones put you in a trance-like state.”1

Can’t You Feel The Beat?

According to Lyz Cooper, founder of the British Academy of Sound Therapy, Weightless “contains a sustaining rhythm that starts at 60 beats per minute and gradually slows to around 50. While listening, your heart rate gradually comes to match that beat. It is important that the song is eight minutes long because it takes about five minutes for [the process of] entrainment, to occur. The fall in heart rate also leads to a fall in blood pressure.”1

Brainwave Frequencies

Figure 1. Brainwave Frequencies

“Entrainment in the biomusicological sense refers to the synchronization of organisms to an external rhythm, usually produced by other organisms with whom they interact socially.”5 In other words, when two rhythms are in close contact, they will begin to synchronize.

Neutrons are the brain’s messengers. They process and transmit information via electrical and chemical signals, creating a remarkable network of communication throughout the brain and the nervous system. When you hear a sound, the frequency of that sound wave is translated into an electrical charge. In the process of reaching the brain and processing the sound, more and more neurons are activated.

Millions upon millions of neurons must synchronize to regulate activities in the body, and thus they release a pulse of electricity.  This rhythmic or repetitive neural activity creates a brainwave or neural oscillation. In fact, in different states of consciousness, the brainwaves oscillate at different frequencies (see Figure 1). Eventually, the external rhythm of the music will influence these neural oscillations, causing Brainwave entrainment or “brainwave synchronization.” There have been several studies showing how music can entrain a person’s breathing and pulse, as well.

All kinds of rhythms can affect the brain, but the most influential ones are those that are already about the same frequency as the brain. Since the most effective musical frequencies are also close to the brain’s frequency, low tones (like from a cello and base) work best to influence brainwaves. And, what do you know? There’s a constant wavering low-tone through the Weightless song.

Neurological Takeover
Many studies have produced brain scans of people listening to tunes, and it seems like music lights up the brain like a Christmas tree. All sounds are processed in the auditory cortex on both sides of the brain, though specific attributes of music such as pitch, melody, harmony, timbre are also mostly processed in the right auditory cortex.6 The left auditory cortex is particularly adept at recognizing rapid changes in frequency and intensity.6 Both the left auditory cortex and the right are necessary for a full understanding of the music’s rhythm.6 Memories stored in the frontal cortex influence your perception of rhythm and melody.The music may evoke a memory and/or an emotion, and that in turn can influence your motor cortex.6 Or perhaps you want to sing along, and thus the language and speech centers will activate.6 Like I said: Christmas lights.

Yes, reactions to a songs vary greatly. A melody or certain lyrics can call to mind particular memories and with it emotions and responses unique to the individual.

031813sweetowfig8However, one recent study by scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine determined that when listening to the same piece of classical music (without lyrics and song none of the participants had heard before), activity in different brains began to act similarly. 3 Vinod Menon, PhD, claimed that this study shows “for the first time that despite our individual differences in musical experiences and preferences, classical music elicits a highly consistent pattern of activity across individuals in several brain structures including those involved in movement planning, memory and attention.”

Bodily Connection
Music has a curiously powerful effect on the brain, which in turn affects the rest of the body. Several nursing studies have shown that music therapy can actually lessen a patient’s pain, and they require fewer pain medications or even less anesthesia.

In fact, when listening to music you enjoy, the body’s dopamine levels can increase.4 Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that allows for a “feel good” state, and is often released when eating sweets or having sex. Dopamine is your brain’s “reward” for good behavior; it reinforces behaviors that aid in the species’ survival (food, reproduction). Have you ever had chills when listening to your favorite song? That is the effect of dopamine, released when you experience an intense emotional response. Dr. Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist who conducted research on this topic, claims that “to our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that an abstract reward such as music can lead to dopamine release. Abstract rewards are largely cognitive in nature, and this study paves the way for future work to examine non-tangible rewards that humans consider rewarding for complex reasons.”4

The Verdict
Weightless sounds a bit like ambient music, but it also sounds too big and vast to be “background noise.” The higher chimes provide some melodic interest, though they are not so loud that they overpower the lower tones. In fact, the high tones sound like wind chimes in a lazy summer breeze. There isn’t a repeating melody, so you don’t get too bored. Not something I’d listen to all the time, but certainly an interesting experiment.

What do you think?

1 “Band creates the ‘most relaxing tune ever'” The Telegraph 16 Oct. 2011. Telegraph Media Group. 27 Apr. 2013 <;.
2 Krumhansl, Carol L. “Music: A link between cognition and emotion.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 11.2 (2002): 45-50.
3 Stanford University Medical Center. “Different brains have similar responses to music.”ScienceDaily, 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2013.
4 McGill University (2011, January 12). Musical chills: Why they give us thrills. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 27, 2013, from <­/releases/2011/01/110112111117.htm&gt;
5 “Entrainment (biomusicology).” Wikipedia. 19 Apr. 2013. Wikimedia Foundation. 27 Apr. 2013 <;.
6 Cromie, William J. “Music on the Brain.” Harvard University Gazette. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 22 Mar. 2001. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.


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