They say that music soothes the savage breast. That phrase actually comes from a play called "The Mourning Bride," written by William Congreve in the 1700s. The phrase, while now cliché, still contains a lot of truth: Music has the power to soothe us. Music can also trigger and express powerful emotions like joy and love, as well as anger and fear. Some music makes you feel bad and some music makes you feel good. Hearing emotions expressed in music can help the listener to release feelings or empathize with and connect to others. These are some of the reasons why music is used as therapy to help people recover from physical and mental trauma, and is often used in addiction recovery.
How does music have such a profound effect on us? What is it about music that creates such a strong emotional response? The truth is, scientists don't know the exact mechanism that gives music such emotional power, but they do have several ideas about how our brains and bodies respond to music.
Music and the Brain
In the documentary The Music Instinct: Science and Song, scientists and musicians collaborate to explore the effects of music on the brain and body. One thing they discovered is that there isn't one music area of the brain. Music actually affects multiple areas of the brain at once. For example, when listening to a popular composition by Max Richter and Dinah Washington, your brain actually interprets the music in several ways at once, using different parts of your brain. One area of your brain processes the words, another area processes the sound of Dinah's voice, while another processes the sound of the strings, and another the melody. The brain then takes those individual elements and puts them all together. All these different levels of interpretation happen instantly and simultaneously, so that you don't even notice how your brain is processing and interpreting the information.
Interestingly, there are those who can't hear music in the same way, in part because their brains don't process all the components properly, or they don't synthesize and reintegrate them properly.
Music and the Body
Music is made up of vibrations of sound waves. Your ears register sound when they pick up the sound waves that flow through the air and vibrate your ear drum. Those same sound waves are also vibrating other parts of your body. You may not realize that sound is vibrating in other parts of your body beyond your ears, because your other organs are not necessarily as sensitive to sound as your eardrums, so you don't realize what's happening.
There are people, however, who are more sensitive to sound vibrations and can actually feel sounds resonate in various parts of their body. One example is Dame Evelyn Glennie, the deaf percussionist who was featured in the 2012 London Olympics. She hears by feeling the vibrations of the instruments through her feet and other parts of her body.
The body's ability to feel sound is probably part of the reason why some people have a tendency to play music very loudly, especially music with heavy bass lines. That effect is especially noticeable in small, enclosed spaces, like your car. Because cars are small spaces surrounded by metal and glass, the vibration of sound within the car may be magnified, and you may experience that vibration more readily throughout your body. Many people enjoy this sensation.
It makes sense if you think about it. Your first experience with sound was in the womb where you were surrounded by liquid, which also amplified the sound in an enclosed environment. The very first sound you probably heard was the deep bass throb of your mother's heartbeat. So, cranking up the sound on your stereo can be really comforting because it kind of reproduces the experience of the womb.
Music and Emotional Cues
The fact that music affects multiple parts of the brain and the body explains why certain music evokes an emotional response--sometimes a negative emotional response. For example, if you're watching a scary movie, the music that is used to accompany the action actually does more to make you afraid than if the images ran without music. If you mute the music, you will probably have a very different response to the scene. For examples of this phenomenon, just look at the trailer for The Sound of Music, the trailer for Stephen King's IT, or the trailers for any of the Harry Potter movies. In all of these, the music provides emotional cues and sets the emotional tone for the stories.
The reason music affects us the way it does is still a mystery, but that shouldn't stop you from enjoying it. Whether you like samba or soul, hip-hop or hard rock, music truly can soothe the soul.
Music and Addiction Recovery
Music is often used as a therapeutic tool during treatment for addiction, as well as during addiction recovery. Addiction counselors and music therapists may use music to help patients manage their physical, emotional, or cognitive problems. In a music therapy session, a therapist might have the patient listen to certain music, to sing along, or even to dance to it. Therapists in some recovery programs will encourage patients to discuss the lyrics of a song and what the lyrics might mean to them. Music therapists might even ask patients to create music or write music lyrics as a way of expressing their feelings and working through problems.
When used as a supplemental type of therapy during addiction recovery, music can help to reduce the negative emotions and stress levels that an addict encounters as they adjust to being sober. Some recovering addicts find that if they listen to music when they are bored or restless, the music can help distract them from negative thoughts or wanting to use again--music can help redirect thoughts and energies in a more positive and less destructive direction.
People in recovery sometimes encounter depression and anxiety, and in these instances music can help to lighten the mood. A word of caution: be careful to choose the right type of music to help lift the mood and keep things positive. It is best to avoid music that will make a recovering addict reminisce about old times when he or she was using drugs or alcohol. It is also best to avoid music that will trigger unpleasant memories. A music therapist or addiction counselor can discuss your individual needs and unique situation, and help guide you towards the types of music that will have the greatest benefit during your addiction treatment and recovery.