When 'N Sync reunited for all of 80 seconds at this year's VMAs, it was enough to send devoted fans into a tailspin. Though the boy band split up in 2002, it still holds a special place in the hearts of admirers around the world. Perfectly coordinated dance moves, coiffed hair, and stellar marketing efforts all led to their success. Yet, the power they have over us is the music behind it all.
There are emotional, evolutionary, and neurobiological reasons for why we like music. Just learning how to play music can sharpen language skills and enhance brain development. Incredibly, music has even been an effective therapy in stroke patients and for pain relief. The power of music extends beyond your crush on those dreamy boy bands.
Music affects us deeply, emotionally, and at a primal level. When you get chills from a song, that's dopamine flooding your brain's pleasure system. This same system is activated when you eat, have sex, or make friends. Your brain responds to music in the same way it does to things required for survival. This is why a song can make you laugh, cry, or transcend the world around you.
Music enjoyed in the company of others is even more powerful. As social animals, being part of a group is not only more fun, it's safer. We like music because makes us feel like we belong. Sharing those experiences and feelings with others validates one's place in the group and thus, offers a sense of protection (unless, of course, you're caught in the throngs of shrieking girls at a One Direction concert).
These rewarding properties of music can extend into therapy. As a pain reliever, music has been shown to disrupt pain signals before we perceive them. In stroke patients or those with brain damage, music therapy can help reshape the brain to recover lost functions. For example, a bullet wound damaged congresswoman Gabby Giffords' speech centers in the left hemisphere of her brain. Injury to that part of the brain causes regular speech to be difficult, but singing the same words to be easier. Her singing therapy has been shown to create new speech systems in the brain to compensate for injury.
Finally, musical training has been found to enhance language processing. In a study published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that teenagers who could keep a beat by tapping in time with a metronome responded more consistently to speech. This heightened response may lead to sharper language skills. Training plays a role in non-musical skills, which may help explain the close connection between music and language.
We process music in both hemispheres. We experience it at several levels. It serves an emotional, evolutionary, and perhaps therapeutic role in our lives. So whether it's a boy band or Bach, rock on.