Have you ever wondered why humankind has felt the need to create musical instruments for over 40,000 years? The easy answer is that they enjoyed listening to music. The more complex answer is that music does something profound to the human brain.
Here’s how the brain changes while listening to music, and why the blues particularly is a very potent genre for amplifying those brainwaves.
The science of blues music
What can explain the way music makes us feel when we hear B.B. King or John Lee Hooker sing with soul?
One theory is that music connects us all together, serving as an ‘anthem’ of shared purpose. It’s no coincidence that we bond over music, whether it’s recreational, patriotic, or even an expression of love to family members.
Blues music attracts fans of blues; so we do have a shared culture.
Blues brain stimulation
But even scientifically speaking, we see that music stimulates the brain. You can actually see it too, the way the active areas light up during MRI scans. This suggests that music helps improve memory, slow cognitive decline (like dementia or Alzheimer’s), and even boosts pleasure and reward chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
One of the most interesting studies on music’s effect on the brain comes from a 2014 study on how hearing music directly affects a person’s emotional health.
When we hear the blues or any genre that we like, we enter a sort of ‘neurobiological and neurorehabilitation’ process, one that changes the way we ‘experience [our own] personal thoughts and memories.’
Yes, your favourite Bonamassa blues single literally changes the ‘connectivity’ between auditory brain areas and the memory-related hippocampus. You simply cannot avoid the emotional stimulation of a good song; it’s pure instinct to feel it.
Do the blues have special healing powers?
But couldn’t the same thing be said about classical, jazz, or even rock and roll? What makes the blues special when it comes to brainpower?
Some believe that the roots of blues music is what makes the music so soothing. We know the blues descended from 1800s-era African American culture…but not from slaves. Rather, their descendants sang the Blues first, men who were newly freed and singing about the hardships of The Great Migration, and moving into northern territories.
Read more about the history of Mississippi Delta Blues music.
The Blues is partly about tragedy, financial problems, relationship problems, and injustice. But singing about stress and anxiety is partly about overcoming it. Surviving it. Using pain as a means to create art, express primal feelings, and release them.
Consistent with this theory is the observation that improvising music physically ‘shuts off’ the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – which is the part of your brain that controls reasoning, decision-making, and other abstract thoughts.
Shutting off this part of the pain, in theory, could put the blues artist into a ‘flow state’ or a sense of immersion in the music they are creating.
No surprise! Discover magazine reported that sad blues music also showed a ‘deeper flow state’ in musicians. Sad music also stimulated another part of the brain, the substantia nigra, which is involved in producing pleasure and reward chemicals. Sadness fires up the brain.
Whatever ails you, blues is the cure
Coincidence? Not likely. Sad blues music may be just the ‘therapy’ one needs to process grief, pain, and sorrow. When we think of it in the past tense, we have what’s called emotional distance. The perspective and process of talking about something you’ve lived through and survived is an effective form of therapy.
And when it’s sung with a heavenly voice and a talented set of fingers, it feels downright spiritual! Have thoughts on Blues Keep reading Psychreg.org for more on culture and music.
Adam Mulligan did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.
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