Thursday, March 15, 2012

An attempt to explain why the word "heart" is in every song, ever.

            Sometimes school is a wonderful place.  My friends are close-by, my food is prepared for me, and… hmm.  Well, I’m sure there are more reasons.  On the other hand, school can be pretty stressful.  In this desk wedged in the corner of a tiny, messy room, my potential future paths are paved or demolished with each new assignment.  That’s why, although it is precariously placed and makes my space even more cramped, I always have my guitar with me, back in this corner against the wall.  It rests upright on the floor, leaning over just slightly.  Whenever a task overwhelms me and I feel my temperature rise, I drop my pen or remove my hands from the keyboard and play some songs until I’ve calmed down enough to move on.  It’s carried me through some tough times.

            That may not be surprising to you.  I assume most anyone can agree that music alters moods.  In general, reggae evokes joy, jazz causes relaxation, rock triggers excitement, and Ke$ha induces uncontrollable, projectile vomiting.  It’s so familiar that it seems to be intuitive, but there’s no obvious reason for a harp to put me to sleep while an electric guitar makes me throw myself mindlessly around in a stagefront pit and punch people (I have never done this.).

            To illuminate the effects of music on the human body, a University of Maryland study monitored cardiovascular changes in ten volunteers as they listened to several musical genres.  Each participant was starved of their favorite tunes for a week before the test.  They each selected one genre that made them happy (which turned out to be country for most participants – Something tells me not to comment on this.), and one that made them anxious.  Humorous videos were also included in the test.

            Before testing, brachial artery blood flow was measured as a pressure cuff was tightened and then removed.  This provided a measure of blood vessel responsiveness so that dilation could be compared between participants.  On the first test day, one genre was chosen for each participant at random and played for 30 minutes.  Over the next 8 months, each genre including “funny videos” was tested several times, for a total of 16 measurements on each subject.

             The results were “highly significant,” according to project leader Dr. Michael Miller.  “Happy” music caused blood vessels to dilate by 26% while “anxious” music constricted them by 6%.  The funny videos brought about a 19% increase in blood vessel diameter.

            While these data present evidence that music influences stress, Dr. Miller and associates are unsure of the neurological mechanisms that connect the two.  Previous studies have linked music to the release of endorphins, the neurotransmitters associated with pleasure and the dampening of stress response and pain immediately following injury.

             So music, an abstraction of tones and rests between them, carried through the air by gas molecules vibrating against each other and reaching the human mind as a volley of electrical signals, is able to ease or augment our anxiety and flex the walls of our arteries.  Somehow, long ago in our evolutionary history, this connection arose.  Perhaps it served to unite our ancestors in shared emotion.  Maybe it came about as a way to self-regulate emotion in times of peace or battle.  Nowadays, it allows me to survive senior project proposals.

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