Music or at least some music has a well-known relaxing effect and is believed to have an important positive role in sleep modulation. Indeed, listening to music (in the appropriate volume and with appropriate characteristics) promotes an improvement in the perception we have of the quality of our sleep. But which are the musical attributes that help improve sleep quality? Are the characteristics the same for everyone? Do they vary in each one of us according to our state of mind? These are many of the questions in this topic and which need to be discovered.
Some music features, typically present in lullabies, seem to help induce sleep. These include a simple, repetitive pattern with soothing melodies; curiously they are often sung by female voices, which seem to have an effect by evoking the maternal voice. This kind of music induces the appearance of alpha rhythms in the brain, which are associated with inducing sleep; instead, other musical types promote distinct brain rhythms that are associated with states of alert.
Sleep is a critical element for the proper functioning of the brain. The sleep pattern varies dramatically during neurodevelopment: for example, bedtime, the time to fall asleep and the sleep duration / need to sleep varies markedly between a nursing infant, a child and a teenager. However, a good quality sleep is essential for enhancing our cognitive and emotional capabilities and often, even in children, this quality of sleep is compromised, with consequences for the functioning and development of the child.
Sleep, despite having intrinsic characteristics (i.e., no need to teach a baby to sleep), is also learned. And in this learning, the parental model is important. Indeed, parenting styles and their sleep patterns seem to have an important role in the children's quality of sleep, especially in the definition of "sleep rituals". These "rituals" are critical to the quality of sleep, and are transmitted across generations by behavioural patterns. And again we return to music, where we started from, with its relaxing and sleep modulating role, and with the enormous contribution it can give for the best sleep of our children.
Music has many properties, and one of them is having an inducing effect in brain activity and, as such, having a global enhancing effect in cognitive abilities. Learning music not only promotes capabilities strictly related to the musical technical aspects, but also enhances cognitive abilities involving space-time skills. Spatial and temporal cognitive skills are important, for example, to understand mathematical concepts and are particularly stimulated by rhythmic training, which raises the question: what are the specific music attributes that specifically stimulate certain cognitive skills? Are all musical stimuli equally effective? Can music be used as a “cognitive enhancer”? Are the effects equal in all ages? Should the stimulus be extended in time?
It is known today that the sooner the musical learning is done and for a longer period of time (at least 2 years), the greater and more lasting the cognitive effects seem to be. It is also interesting to note that children who learn music develop better language skills (even in dyslexic children), thus showing that the effects are not confined to mathematical skills. The same goes for memory capacities, in particular when the associated memories are related with musical aspects or with the ability to be attentive and develop hand-eye coordination beyond the related to the singing or instrument technique. Interestingly, learning other artistic aspects seems to have less positive effects.
It is true that there is a direct correlation between brain volume or academic success and classical music learning in children of early age (known as the “Mozart effect”), it seems that learning music is a stimulus to our brain and makes us more sensitive, and therefore, more human.
It is no surprise that musicians, as a result of learning, training and re-training of musical skills, generally show a better performance in tasks involving auditory capabilities. But may this gain be extendable to other tasks? And may it affect intelligence? All forms of intelligence? And creativity?
Emotional intelligence includes several dimensions: the ability to perceive emotions, the understanding of how emotions are processed, and the ability to use emotional states in reasoning, and the (successful) management of emotions in the social context. Studies show that musical training enhances the ability to capture emotions in music pieces, although not all studies confirm this advantage; the truth is that musicians have a greater ability to discriminate words and noise. It is also certain that musical training stimulates other cognitive fields such as attention, space-time abilities and motor coordination. And, yet, it offers a greater ability to use and express states of emotion through music that gives them sense and meaning.
Creativity is something we all have; the problem is how we express this creativity, which seems to be more effective in some. And music helps to express our creativity; more, brain activity is distinct when a musician plays a known musical excerpt or when he is creating, improvising. And if we better understand how to stimulate creativity in each of us, in particular through musical training, we are stimulating our ability to communicate our emotions and our feelings and to increase our self-confidence. And it is our emotional intelligence, which makes us all unique.
Music has enormous power over memory. The musical mnemonic associations are impressive. We have all experienced hearing a piece of music and, immediately, feel a wave of associated images and feelings blooming in our brain: where were we when we heard this music for the first time? Who were we with? And why is the association between music and memory so strong?
Several lines of research have explored this connection between music and memory. It is now known that learning certain languages is facilitated if the sentences are sung. It was also discovered that evoking favourite songs to people who were affected by brain trauma. The fact that hearing music activates cerebral areas which are relevant for processing memories and emotions reveals that there are several possibilities of interactions between music and memory, both in the physiological point of view, and even in a therapeutic dimension. Thus, it is not surprising that today there are several therapeutic intervention programmes that use music as a central element of these cognitive rehabilitation processes.
A recent study shows that people keep small memories of the songs that their parents and grandparents heard. This discovery reveals the extraordinary impact of music in our autobiographical memories formed as children, and certainly in our determination as individuals. To a large extent, we are our memories, and music is part of that transgenerational legacy.
The ability of the foetus to hear the first sounds appears at 17/18 weeks of gestation. Around 26 weeks, the foetal heart rate shows changes in response to sound stimuli, especially songs; later (around 33/34 weeks) there are signs of coordination between the foetal respiratory rhythm and the musical rhythm. In late pregnancy, the foetal movements are variable and respond differently to different music types. This proves that the music to which the pregnant woman exposes her child to, conditions reactions and behaviours in the foetus. But may listening to music change the development of that foetus? And are these effects sustainable beyond birth? And may they be different according to the musical types?
While neuroscientists seek answers to these and other questions, it is clear that these reactions and behaviours seem to indicate that foetal exposure to musical stimuli in uteri may induce beneficial effects both for the foetus and the mother (provided the stimuli are appropriate). It also serves to foster communication and affiliation between the mother and the baby.
It is worth noting that recent studies show that repeated exposure to a particular melody, induces an increased neuronal response to that melody after birth, proving that you can learn and memorise some sound stimuli during pregnancy. The same happens with words, with the result that the response to the maternal language after birth is distinct from the baby's response to other languages. Thus, it is shown that our brain is built from the prenatal period and that the auditory system has a very important role in that time period. And, perhaps, also in the construction of our musical brain!
Learning to sing, or play an instrument, can (positively) modulate children's behaviour. Indeed, compared with the reading of a story, children become more cooperative and more pro-social after hearing music. These observations raise a critical question: is music only a product that offers mental pleasure, or does it have a purpose for the human mind?
All cultures recognise themselves in distinct musical elements, which aggregate individuals who share that culture. Musical experiences, in essence, appeal to the synchronised behaviour of individuals as a single entity. Hence it can be said that music has a pro-social function, by strengthening affective and affiliation bonds between group individuals that share these musical sensory experiences. Music is a strong link between people and makes theme share a common cultural legacy.
In neuroscience, there is a critical principle : neurons that fire together, work together. In music, those working in sync, behave in tune. Several lines of evidence support this fundamental idea. Students who participate in musical activities together, enjoy school activities more, even beyond those directly involving the music. More importantly, affective and friendship bonds increase significantly, preparing them for synchronous and more pro-social actions.