Anyone who listens to music — which is around 90% of the population — has likely experienced its power to soothe, stir up emotion, connect, and jog memories. Whatever the mood or moment, the soundtrack possibilities are endless. But the power of music stretches far beyond merely comforting or entertaining its listener — studies show that the art form is also full of possibilities when it comes to the world of science.
Research has proven that music can be harnessed to improve mental health, reduce pain, and otherwise profoundly affect our brains. From the fields of neurology to astronomy, music has contributed to unique advancements in the way we understand ourselves and the world. These findings support the idea that music can serve as a catalyst for healing, breaking barriers, and connecting — sometimes without us even being aware of its impact.
The relationship is a two-way street: Scientists have used music to enhance their field, and musicians have used science to enhance their art. To highlight this intersection, we compiled the below music-meets-science examples, ranging from music being used to help people with dementia to astrophysicists using planets’ orbits to create musical rhythms.
Well-Being and Music: Using Music to Reduce Pain and Feelings of “Unpleasantness”
Research has shown that music has the power to reduce physical pain and provide comfort. And an October 2023 paper published in Frontiers in Pain Research added to that body of research, finding that listening to your favorite songs is particularly effective.
“In our study, we show that favorite music chosen by study participants has a much larger effect on acute thermal pain reduction than unfamiliar relaxing music,” lead author Darius Valevicius said in a statement. “We also found that emotional responses play a very strong role in predicting whether music will have an effect on pain.”
The scientists also evaluated musical themes to see if they affected pain relief, and found that “moving or bittersweet emotional experiences” seemed to result in lower ratings of pain and unpleasantness.
Neurology and Music: Scientists Re-Create Pink Floyd Song by Analyzing Listeners’ Brain Waves
In August 2023, Scientists re-created a portion of Pink Floyd’s 1979 hit “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1” by analyzing the brain waves of people listening to it.
Researchers played 90% of the song for epilepsy patients undergoing surgery to curb seizures, and trained a computer model on their neural activity collected via brain electrodes, per Science. The team then programmed the algorithm to come up with the remaining 10% — about 15 seconds of music — based on the patterns it had learned. The resulting audio is an eerie, echoey simulacrum.
“We’re on the threshold of lots of things — the fusion of neuroscience and computer engineering, and really, in many ways, the sky’s the limit,” study lead Ludovic Bellier told Fortune. The work provides insight into how the brain processes music, and may be used to help people who struggle to speak due to injuries or diseases.
Mental Health and Music: Study Shows Music May Benefit Mental Health as Much as Exercise
Music lovers will tell you that bopping along to your favorite song is a surefire way to feel better, but a scientific review published in JAMA concluded that music’s benefit to mental health is actually comparable to that of exercise. In other words, singing your heart out in the shower could be as good for your mind as a jog around the block.
Researchers analyzed data from 26 studies involving a combined 779 adult participants. Each study measured the impact of making and listening to music on health-related quality of life (HRQOL). The review, published in March 2022, found “moderate-quality quantitative evidence of associations between music interventions and clinically significant changes in mental HRQOL.”
After comparing that evidence to data on other approaches, the authors noted that the results are within the range of the “average effects of established non–pharmaceutical and medical interventions (e.g., exercise, weight loss).” Read more.
Technology and Music: Machine Turns Heartbeats of Children With Heart Defects Into Rhythms
About 40,000 children in the U.S. are born with congenital heart defects, or CHD, each year. In an effort to hold space for this condition in an intentional way, a father of two sons who have heart issues reached out to Swedish audiovisual artist and woodworker Love Hultén.
From there, the CHD-4 was born: a unique drum-like machine that decoded electrocardiograms from four children with heart defects and transformed the patterns into sequences, which ultimately produced sounds based on their unique heartbeats (the individual shape, pace, and beats per minute).
Fast Company described Hultén’s invention as a “one-of-a-kind machine designed to produce rhythm and music where there is none,” with Hellqvist adding that “it takes dark and heavy experiences and transforms them into something beautiful. Into hope and change.”
Astrology and Music: Astrophysicists Bring a Sound to Saturn’s Moons and Rings
Astrophysicists at the University of Toronto used music to bring a sense of Saturn to Earth — despite the planets being hundreds of millions of miles apart.
The team “converted Saturn’s moons and rings into two pieces of music,” said astrophysicist Matt Russo in a press release from the institution. They made the music based on the patterns of “orbital resonances” and “rhythmic gravitational tugs” that were then converted into musical harmony. This data was collected via the Cassini spacecraft, a mission that orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017.
Dan Tamayo, a postdoctoral researcher at CITA and the Centre for Planetary Sciences at U of T Scarborough, explained: “Saturn’s magnificent rings act like a sounding board that launches waves at locations that harmonize with the planet’s many moons, and some pairs of moons are themselves locked in resonances.”
This isn’t the only time music has been created from the cosmos. You can hear the moons of Jupiter, heartbeat stars, and sonification from data of a black hole at the center of the Milky Way, along with an exciting universe of planetary playlists created through SYSTEM Sounds: a sci-art outreach project co-founded by Russo and Tamayo.
Cognitive Function and Music: The Role of Music on People With Cognitive Impairments
Many studies have explored music as a bridge to memory, identity, and expression for people with dementia. For example, music was shown to elicit pleasurable responses (like smiling and dancing) even in later stages of the disease when verbal communication wasn’t accessible. It was also shown to spark connection between patients and caregivers and facilitate episodic memory recall.
A March study published in Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy also found that while music helped improve cognitive functions of patients with Alzheimer’s, the influence was even greater when the patients were involved in the music making.
Attention and Music: Using Music to Stay Focused
Have trouble staying focused? Consider turning on some tunes. A Stanford study showed that “music moves [the] brain to pay attention” by engaging certain areas and, ultimately, increasing cognitive activity. Per a press release from the institution, “Music engages the brain over a period of time … and the process of listening to music could be a way that the brain sharpens its ability to anticipate events and sustain attention.”
That being said, music isn’t broadly beneficial to every task on your to-do list. Psychologists have found that music is more distracting than beneficial when it comes to studying.
“Multitasking is a fallacy; human beings are not capable of truly multitasking because attention is a limited resource, and you can only focus on so much without a cost,” cognitive psychologist Brian Anderson said in a Texas A&M University press release. “So when you’re doing two things at the same time, like studying and listening to music, and one of the things requires cognitive effort, there will be a cost to how much information you can retain doing both activities.”
Artificial Intelligence and Music: AI Completing the Beatles’ Final Song
Forty-five years after John Lennon first started working on the song, artificial intelligence put the finishing touches on what we know today as “Now and Then.” According to the official video’s description, the unexpected gift is thanks to a software system that allowed for the song to be completed with contributions from all four Beatles in the piece — and is a reflection of the band’s “endless creative curiosity and shared fascination with technology.”
There’s no question AI is changing the way music is being curated, played, and created, and this is one example of how it can be used to salvage something beautiful.
“It marks the completion of the last recording that John, Paul, George, and Ringo will get to make together,” the video’s description reads, “and celebrates the legacy of the foremost and most influential band in popular music history.”
Music and Togetherness: Singing With Others Is Good for Us
A growing body of research shows that singing together at any occasion boosts well-being. One of the reasons for that is endorphins, those happy hormones runners are always going on about.
“Singing is one of the mega-mechanisms we use for bonding,” Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian. “Singing in the shower gives you a bit of an uplift, but when doing it communally, there’s something about the synchrony of singing that creates this massive endorphin uplift.”
Dunbar set out to prove singing’s bonding power in a 2015 study, in which strangers sang together for an hour and left as, well, not strangers. “It was as if they’d known each other since primary school,” he recalled.
He noted that the prolonged exhalation and breath work required while singing likely contributes to its health benefits. Going forward, this research could help inform therapies for dementia, Parkinson’s, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, long COVID, and more.