Recently I realized that while I often say that I love listening to music, what I really mean is that I like a playlist of about fifty songs, and that’s it. While there’s nothing wrong with the comforting chords I tend to surround myself with, there’s a whole world of music out there. As a fun challenge, I decided to broaden my musical horizons and listen to anything and everything, including entire genres I had previously dismissed because I “didn’t like them”—and I was wowed by what I learned.
There are certainly social benefits to becoming a more diverse connoisseur of music; for example, you’ll be very well prepared to recommend music to other people and better able to select suitable music for any occasion. I was, however, particularly fascinated to find that different types of music meet our brains in different ways.
As it turns out, listening to a diverse array of music doesn’t just help us broaden our tastes; each genre has unique benefits to offer.
Music and the brain
Listening to music, any music, engages our brains. Different parts of the brain interact with music and create our physiological experience of it, from the auditory cortex, which first works to break down what we’re hearing in terms of pitch and volume, to the amygdala, which processes emotions, and the mesolimbic system, which deals with pleasure response and neurotransmitters like dopamine. Our memory centers and motor systems also get in on the groove: MRI scans of people listening to music show significant activity in those areas when specific songs were played, indicating the strong link between music and memory and (very simply) the urge to dance when our jam is played. One study found that listening to music can even alter visual perception—meaning that what you listen to and how it makes you feel may actually impact how you see and navigate the world.
Furthermore, different genres of music affect the brain in different ways—causing differing cascades of hormones, triggering different neurons to fire, calling up specific sets of memories and giving rise to disparate wells of emotion.
Patrick Wong, a researcher at Northwestern University, has coined a term—bimusicality—to describe an innate comfortableness with music from more than one culture (like Western music, Indian, Latin, etc). In a recent study, he found that “if you are bimusical, you tend to engage a larger network of the brain when you listen to the two kinds of music.” According to Wong’s research, the ability to listen to music from different cultures and only feel a low-degree of “tension” indicates the brain is utilizing not only the auditory area, but also perhaps needs the emotional areas of the brain more, too.
This research has me thinking—are we using different parts of our brain when we’re listening to different genres of music (pop, rap, classical, etc)? Here’s some of the evidence I’ve found.
One study I found indicates that popular music is associated with higher levels of endurance and spurts of energy, possibly because of its usual upbeat personality. This makes it an excellent choice for your workout playlists—it may literally help you run the extra mile. However, I like to think that there’s a secondary benefit to taking in pop music. As a genre defined by the fact that everyone’s tuning in, pop music can serve as a means of connection for us all—the accessibility of the lyrics and the unforgettableness of its melodies can give even strangers something in common to discuss.
Good places to get started: Word of mouth, local radio, Spotify’s “New Music Friday” playlist
The stories told through rap songs are often ones of hard work and personal transformation, which has led many to believe that listening to rap and hip-hop can help those experiencing depression. According to research from Cambridge University’s department of psychology, rap music, “with its rags-to-riches narrative trajectories, displays ‘positive visual imagery,’ a psychotherapeutic technique common among sports stars, in which one envisages the place where one would like to be, so as to facilitate one’s progression to a better mental place.”
Additionally, because of the intricate beats and often intense word counts, relative to other genres of music, rap songs often include incredibly clever wordplay—which can make the genre a great creative resource for poets and authors.
Good places to get started: I will never not recommend the Hamilton soundtrack—yes, I know this isn’t a new idea! However, in addition to being a Broadway sensation, Hamilton was the #1 Billboard rap album in its own right shortly after its debut. It’s got hip-hop, it’s got jazz, it’s got rap—and it’s eminently accessible, making it a great gateway to enjoying genres of music that you might not have previously turned to. I’ve also enjoyed following its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inspiration for similar sparkling, witty turns of phrase—artists such as Big Pun, Biggie, and Lauryn Hill laid a lot of the groundwork for Hamilton.
The classical genre is a wide field which contains in itself an incredible spectrum of music. Its pieces may sometimes suggest a sense of calm but often can evoke the complete opposite. The strength of orchestral music—what we often think of as “classical”—involves telling a story, oftentimes without using words. Classical music is a genre that often suggests music from the past. And for good reasons: many of the composers who immediately come to mind when we think of classical music (Bach! Mozart! Beethoven!) lived hundreds of years ago. But classical music is also a genre thriving in modernity with composers such as Unsuk Chin and Philip Glass, continuing to compose exciting and new works. There are also applications for classical music that are very practical. We’ve all heard of Baby Mozart and how it’s supposed to make our children smarter. That may or may not be accurate—but, studies have indicated that listening to classical music in traffic reduces road rage. (Which leads me to a tip: just set the radio in your car to your classical station, and forget it. It’s mindless classiness.)
Good places to get started: Verily has a few classical playlists for you: Focused Classical, An Hour with Debussy, An Hour with Daniel Hope; your local classical radio station; The Piano Guys playlist and “Peaceful Piano” playlist on Spotify are favorites of mine, along with John Williams for favorite movie soundtracks. I also love Spotify’s “Classical Romance” playlist!
This genre of music (for a while) was relegated to elevator music, but it could be experiencing a resurgence in popularity. This is good news for your brain as music with a more mellow tempo (of about 60 bpm) is associated with a feeling of calmness and relaxation. Many classic jazz songs run at that more relaxing clip, providing a great incentive to slow down and take a journey through popular songs of the past.
Good places to get started: The La La Land soundtrack—particularly, the slower songs—for a modern bridge to the genre; and then on to the classics, such as Miles Davis (a good example would be his song “Kind of Blue”) and Ella Fitzgerald (start with “Shiny Stockings” or “Basin Street Blues”). Here's a playlist to listen to first!
This genre of music—which includes screamo, punk, and other extreme styles of singing—often gets a bad rap, but studies have shown that listening to this music is associated with enhanced positive emotions.
Good places to get started: metal isn’t a genre of music that I am very familiar with—so I began with learning a bit about its history and searched for a few best-of lists for beginners. Ultimately, Spotify’s “Old School Metal” playlist has you covered if you’re curious to learn more!
The next time you’re looking to listen to music or you’re in need of a mood shift, select your musical ambiance with a bit more intention. When you open yourself up to a world of diverse music, and when you are listening for things other than quick, catchy enjoyment, you open yourself up to a dizzying array of options to really help set a mood. With an expanded library of music to choose from, you can decide if you want your morning to be upbeat or moody; you can decide if you want your next party to lean classy or casual. Appreciating a wide selection of music gives you more options as well as exercising your brain. Let’s make a point of making our musical diet as healthy and varied as the wide world around us—we may all just be a little happier for it.