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From bird brains to genetic boosts, what the latest science studies reveal about the power of music

Jennifer Van Evra

It's no secret that music is incredibly powerful—but why is that? And in what ways?

These are questions that scientists of many stripes have asked, and what their research tells us is astounding.

Can music really give your genes a boost? What should you listen to if you want to feel more powerful? How do all those sex-fueled music videos affect teens' sexual activity? And does listening to music give you a bird brain?

As part of Science Week, we've gathered several of the latest studies. Scroll through the list below to check out the researchers' fascinating findings.

No matter what type of music you listen to, music triggers memories and makes us look inward.

You don’t need a study to tell you that different people have different musical tastes. But when a classical music lover is listening to Mozart, and a hip-hop fan is listening to Kanye West, is there a difference in what’s happening with their brains?

It would be easy to assume that drastically different instrumentation and musical styles would lead to drastically different responses in the brain, but a 2014 study says that may not be in the case.

In short, researchers put participants into functional MRI machines and had them listen to three types of music they had selected in advance: music they liked, music they disliked, and music that was their favourite.

The researchers were surprised to find that, no matter whether the participants were listening to Chinese opera, rap, rock, country or other genres, listening to music that was “liked” or “favourite” affected the areas of the brain responsible for self-referential thought and memory encoding.

“While perhaps everyone intuitively understands the mental experience or feeling when listening to his or her preferred music, whether it is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or Les Miserables, or when listening to their favorite song, such as one from Allison Kraus or Eminem, we show here that this similarity of experience manifests in the brain by engaging the DMN [the default mode network, a circuit important for internally-focused thoughts],” wrote the researchers. 

“As the first study to apply network science methods to ‘real-world’ music listening, these results provide a glimpse into the neural patterns underlying the emotion-cognitive states associated with listening to preferred and favourite music.”

Music triggers the same emotions in all cultures, from Mbenzélé Pygmies of the Congo to hipsters in downtown Montreal.

Does music emotionally affect all cultures the same way?

That’s the question a team of researchers from Montreal and Berlin set out to answer by traveling deep into the rainforest of the Congo to study Mbenzélé Pygmies, who live without access to radio, television or electricity, and comparing their reactions to music with the emotional responses of downtown Montrealers.

For each group, they played both familiar and unfamiliar music, then asked the participants to use emoticons to express the emotions the music made them feel. As they listened to the music, the researchers also monitored their breathing, heart rate and perspiration.

They found that, even though the two groups responded to different music, the emotions they experienced were fundamentally the same. 

"Our major discovery is that listeners from very different groups both responded to how exciting or calming they felt the music to be in similar ways," says co-author Hauke Egermann of Technische Universität in Berlin.

The main difference between the groups was that the Canadians expressed a wider range of emotions than the Pygmies, which could result from how emotions are seen in each culture.

"Negative emotions are felt to disturb the harmony of the forest in Pygmy culture and are therefore dangerous," says Nathalie Fernando of the University of Montreal's Faculty of Music. "If a baby is crying, the Mbenzélé will sing a happy song. If the men are scared of going hunting, they will sing a happy song - in general music is used in this culture to evacuate all negative emotions, so it is not really surprising that the Mbenzélé feel that all the music they hear makes them feel good."

Music lessons spur emotional and behavioural growth in children.

They may grumble about going to their piano or violin lessons, but it turns out those early music lessons may be giving children far more than an education in music: they may also spur kids’ emotional and behavioural growth.

Researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine looked at the brain scans of 232 healthy children aged six to 18, and compared the brain development of kids who played a musical instrument with those who did not.

They found the brains of kids who had musical training were more advanced in the areas of motor skills, anxiety management, emotional control and impulse control.

"What I was surprised by was the emotional regulatory regions. Everyone in our culture knows if I lift five-pound, 10-pound, 15-pound weights, my biceps will get bigger,” said researcher James Hudziak, professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. “The same is true for the brain. We shouldn't be surprised we can train the brain."

Inspired by his own research, 56-year-old Hudziak actually started taking viola lessons.

"I had this passion for health promotion in children, it seemed silly not to do it myself," he said.

Watching music videos leads to more sexual activity in teen boys.

There’s no shortage of sex in music videos — but does watching them make teens more likely to be sexually active?

A team of Belgian researchers surveyed 515 teens, aged 12-15, for a full year, tracking how much television they watched, how sexually active they were, and how sexually active they thought their peers were.

What they found was that those who watched more music videos were more sexually active and also tended to think their friends were sexually active, even when that might not have been the case. This, in turn, led boys to watch more of the videos—and made girls turn them off.

The researchers believe girls' rejection of the videos might have something to do with the negative gender stereotyping of women.

"Regarding the influence of music television exposure on sexual behaviour, our findings suggest that increased sexual activities may be triggered by media use among boys, but not among girls," said co-author Eline Frison.

"As the portrayal of women as objects of lust reflects patriarchal values, media images that support this type of male dominance may provoke resistance in female viewers. This is especially valid among those who view such activity as a threat because of the high sexual activity rates of male peers."

Some people are unable to enjoy music.

For music lovers it seems hard to imagine, but there are people out there who really don't like music—and now there's some science to back them.

In the journal Current Biology, researchers explain that there's a subset of people who can experience pleasure—but they just don't "get" music like the rest of us do.

The researchers looked at three groups of 10 people—one with high pleasure ratings to music, one with average pleasure ratings, and one low.

The subjects participated in two experiments, one a music task, which involved rating the pleasure they were experiencing, as well as a money incentive task—both of which have been shown to produce a rush of dopamine. The researchers also recorded changes in heart rate and skin conductance.

The results were clear: some otherwise healthy and happy people showed no automatic responses to music, but did respond to the monetary reward.

"The idea that people can be sensitive to one type of reward and not to another suggests that there might be different ways to access the reward system and that, for each person, some ways might be more effective than others," co-author Marco-Pallarés says.

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Listening to classical music boosts your genes—and gives you a bird brain?

There are plenty of studies that say music makes us happier and healthier psychologically and neurologically, but is it also affecting us on a molecular level?

According to Finnish researchers, the answer is yes.

A study out of Finland found that listening to classical music boosts the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport (dopamine is one of the drugs in our brain that makes us feel good), synaptic function, learning and memory, and turns down the activity of the genes that cause the brain to degenerate.

To boot, several of the genes that are being up-regulated are the same ones responsible for song learning and singing in songbirds, which suggests that we share a music-based evolutionary trait with our feathered friends.

"The up-regulation of several genes that are known to be responsible for song learning and singing in songbirds suggest a shared evolutionary background of sound perception between vocalizing birds and humans,” says Dr. Irma Järvelä, who headed up the study.

Not only do the findings give new information about the molecular genetic background of music evolution; they may also explain some of the mechanisms behind music therapy.

Music classes can spark language development—but only if kids pay attention.

Kids go to music classes to learn music; but according to research from Northwestern University, they may also be picking up language skills along the way—if they are paying attention.

It’s long been known that music training benefits kids’ developing minds, but it turns out their level of participation also determines the level of benefit.

In a study designed to look at how much engagement matters, researchers from Northwestern University discovered that kids who regularly attended music classes and actively participated showed greater improvements in how their brains processed speech and reading scores than their less involved classmates.

The researchers also pointed out that the neural benefits happened in areas of the brain that tend to be weak in kids from disadvantaged backgrounds—so participation is especially important for at-risk kids.

"Even in a group of highly motivated students, small variations in music engagement – attendance and class participation –predicted the strength of neural processing after music training," said study lead author Nina Kraus, a professor of communication sciences, neurobiology and physiology.

The researchers also noticed that kids who actually played instruments, as opposed to those who attended a music appreciation class, had stronger neural processing.

"Our results support the importance of active experience and meaningful engagement with sound to stimulate changes in the brain," said Kraus.

If you want to feel more powerful, pump up the bass.

Ever used music to get you pumped up for a big workout, a big game or even a big night on the town? According to new research, that feeling of power it delivers isn't a product of your imagination—and the songs that are most effective are the ones with big bass.

Northwestern University’s Dennis Hsu and his colleagues noticed that, when they watched major sporting events, the athletes were often wearing headphones, using music to mentally prepare for big games. So Hsu and his team began looking at whether music can genuinely transform the psychological state of the listener, and specifically, give them a sense of power.

The researchers pre-tested 31 songs from hip-hop to reggae, gauging how powerful people felt after listening to 30-second clips. From that test, they determined the most powerful songs (among them Queen's "We Will Rock You" and 2 Unlimited's "Get Ready for This") and the least powerful (Fatboy Slim's "Because We Can" and Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out").

The researchers then looked at how various songs affected people's sense of power, as well as three behavioural consequences of that sense: their tendency to see the big picture (thought abstraction), their sense of control over social events (perceived control) and the desire to be first in competitions.

They found the most powerful music evoked an unconscious sense of power, and also affected all three consequences of power—and that the feeling stemmed from the bass, not the lyrics.

"We chose to manipulate bass levels in music because existing literature suggests that bass sound and voice are associated with dominance," said Hsu in a release, pointing out that bass sounds (think Darth Vader) are often used to exhibit dominance and confidence.

Hsu plans to study other ways music can induce power, and possibly lead to better performance in everything from job interviews to negotiations.