In 2014, scientists looked closer than ever before at why exactly music makes us feel so powerfully. And they found some amazing and unprecedented things.
Studies revealed that music can shape our personalities and behaviors. It can help us choose our sexual partners. And it can be used to cure certain ailments. The deeper researchers dig, the more we realize how powerful of a force it truly is.
And these findings could not have come at a more perfect moment in time: School systems continue to slash arts and music budgets around the country and the war over how much we pay for music is fundamentally a question of how much we value music. In this crucial year, scientists delivered infallible reminders of what any music lover already knew: Music is more than just entertainment.
Here are 12 amazing things we discovered about music this year:
1. Learning an instrument at a young age can provide improved executive function.
Researchers at Boston Children's Hospital found that early musical training helps children improve their executive functions. Executive functions are incredibly important; they enable people to retain information, regulate behavior and solve problems more effectively.
Children that started playing music at age 6 showed enhanced activation in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that owns executive functions. And they performed far better than control groups on tests requiring them to shift between mental demands. Executive functioning is also a "strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ," said study senior investigator Nadine Gaab. "Our findings suggest that musical training may actually help to set up children for a better academic future."
2. Rhythmic ability has been linked to language learning.
One of the first skills that children need to acquire when learning to read and speak is how to pick up on the rhythms of speech. They gain this ability to detect rhythms and define boundaries between words and syllables long before they can actually speak. So having a good sense of rhythm is very important to learning language. This year, we discovered just how important it really is.
Developmental psychologists at Northwestern University found that testing children for this rhythmic ability is a good way to detect potential language-based disabilities that may hit children later in life. Those that can hold an even drum beat score also higher on early language tests. The study's authors suggest that parents and educators use rhythmic tests to try to identify and address any possible linguistic deficiencies while children's brains are still young and malleable.
3. Music training can help close the achievement gap.
Nina Kraus, a Northwestern researcher also involved with the previous study, found that music can be vital in helping schools close the achievement gap — the massive inequality in academic performance between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Kraus studied the neural activity of kids beginning their music education while working with the Harmony Project, a nonprofit after-school program that teaches music to children in low-income communities in Los Angeles. Using EEGs, Kraus found that brainwaves of disadvantaged children were "noisier, weaker and more variable" in responding to verbal stimuli than children from more privileged backgrounds.
But after two years of musical training, she discovered something very different. She found that students with musical training had gotten much better at making clear neural responses to consonants and vowels. This faster processing power will likely have huge benefits for these children's language acquisition and concentration. Music might be one of most effective ways to help give children from disadvantaged backgrounds the cognitive tools they need to escape poverty.
4. It can combat ADHD.
Three scientists from the University of Graz uncovered a startling pattern in a recent longitudinal study investigating what musical learning does to a brain's plasticity. It turns out that kids who learn music boasted significantly thicker grey matter in brain areas linked to attention and concentration. The kids also demonstrated enhanced right-left hemispheric synchronization, which led to high scores on attentional, linguistic and literacy tests.
In short, musical training builds the same brain structures that are markedly deficient in neural scans of children suffering from ADHD. The scientists hypothesized that early music training can be major benefit to helping children reduce the negative impacts associated with ADHD.
5. It can provide benefits to long-term memory.
Music's benefits to working memory and spatiotemporal faculties have been established with years of research. But evidence that music benefits long-term memory had eluded researchers. Until this year.
Heekyeong Park, from the University of Texas at Arlington, has found the first initial evidence that musical training provides benefits for some aspects of long-term memory. Park presented a group of classically trained musicians and a group of non-musicians with a memory test. She found that trained musicians could far better recall pictures, even though they experienced no benefits for verbal cues. She attributes the findings to the years musicians have spent pouring over musical scores, but she does not have enough data to say conclusively. She's currently planning to repeat the study with more musicians to confirm her findings.
6. It can actually cure tinnitus.
Loud music can give you tinnitus — that horrible ringing in your ears. Chronic tinnitus, which is often associated with age and hearing loss, causes listeners to hear long tones in the absence of any actual musical stimuli. It can be extremely uncomfortable and detrimental to functioning normally. This year, we learned that soft, carefully measured and modified music can take it away.
Music has already been proven to have major effects on cortical plasticity. And now researchers from the University of Münster have found that they can effectively use music on patients to reorganize their auditory cortices to eliminate those ghost tones. Patients listened to music that had been altered to remove tinnitus frequencies for two hours a day for three months. And by the end, the listening training drastically reduced the frequency and severity of their tinnitus. Researchers also found the process of maladaptively reorganizing the cortex is an entirely different mechanism than the reorganization that occurs from focused listening. Musical training can be beneficial for the young as well as the old.
7. Listening to music about alcohol makes people more likely to drink.
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Dartmouth College surveyed our lyric-based stance on substances. They found that the average youth listens to 2.5 hours of popular music a day, and in that window, they're hit with eight mentions of alcohol brands. In a second survey, they found subjects between 15 and 23 years of age who liked songs with alcohol mentions were three times more likely to have had a drink and two times more likely to have binged, compared to participants who didn't like those songs.
"A surprising result of our analysis was that the association between recalling alcohol brands in popular music and alcohol drinking in adolescents was as strong as the influence of parental and peer drinking, and an adolescent's tendency toward sensation-seeking," said Brian Primack, the study's lead author. Our music is giving us drinking probems.
8. Science discovered why talented musicians are so damn sexy.
Benjamin D. Charlton, at the University of Sussex, decided to investigate Charles Darwin's belief that our instinct toward making music is fundamentally all about attracting mates. His study was decided one-sided gender-wise, focusing only on men's attempts to woo women, but he found something truly striking: Darwin was sort of right.
He had 1,465 women listen to four different classical piano pieces of varying levels of complexity, asking them to determine which composer they imagined they would most like to sleep with. Women at the peak of their menstrual cycles were overwhelming drawn to the composer of the most complex piece. Women not at that point in their cycles showed no preference.
Interestingly, these findings only applied to brief flings. None of the women showed any preference in terms of wanting to settle down with one composer over another. Of course, this study doesn't touch on men's reactions to female musicians. But that's a study for 2015.
9. Music can enhance running performance.
There's been a long debate within the running community about whether it's better to run with music or without. This year, musical runners were validated by the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, which showed that music can significantly affect your running abilities.
Researchers had runners listen to three types of music while they ran: fast motivational music, slow motivational music and calm songs. Runners listening to fast motivational music and slow motivational music completed the first 800 meters faster than the control and the calm music groups. All the music helped stimulate runner's prefrontal cortex, which allowed runners to maintain more positive emotions as they ran. These positive emotions contributed to increased performance and faster recovery time post run.
10. Sound quality has a huge impact on musical enjoyment.
Musical quality has a significant impact on musical enjoyment. Researchers at DTS monitored participants' brains while they watched a video accompanied by differing levels of sound quality. The brains of those listening to high-quality 256 kbps sound elicited a 66% larger pleasure response than those who listened to 96 kbps sound (the standard sound quality of Spotify and most streaming services). Now, the sound quality of vinyl hovers around 1,000 kbps according to many estimates. So the potential that music played on vinyl will blow a listener's mind is astronomically higher than when it's played on a digital service.
11. Some people cannot enjoy music.
By far the saddest musical news of the year is that some people's brains simply cannot derive pleasure from music no matter how good or how high quality. The disorder is a form of anhedonia, which describes a person's inability to enjoy activities most find pleasurable. Researchers have already identified in other fields, including sexual anhedonia and social anhedonia.
"Now that we know that there are people with specific musical anhedonia," said Josep Marco-Pallerés, lead author of the study.
Individuals with specific musical anhedonia have normal music processing abilities, and they're not depressed. The music they hear simply does not translate into an autonomic response or feelings of pleasure. People with musical anhedonia did receive large amounts of pleasure and nervous system response from playing a economic money-exchange game. Everyone's got their trigger.
12. Musical ability is directly linked to the sensitivity of your inner ear.
Science also made some serious headway into finding out why some people are natural musicians, and why others can run scales for years and never get anywhere. It turns out, there is a biological basis for musical aptitude. Researchers from the University of Helsinki found out people who scored high a music aptitude test were much more likely to carry genes that determine higher inner ear sensitivity.
According to Discover magazine, this is the first study "to show the importance of auditory pathway genes in musical aptitude." Yet, the study's authors also assert that musical ability is a "complex behavioral trait." "Environmental factors, such as the childhood musical environment, the example set by parents and siblings and music education affect musical abilities," the study's authors write in their conclusion. Some children may have more cooperative biology helping them achieve superstardom, but unless that talent is nurtured through training and effort, they won't be going anywhere.
Music is many things, but it isn't easy. It takes work to create something this important — it takes effort to make something that can so powerfully mold a life.