How Music Helps Me Resist Depression

Today I heard a song I haven’t heard in a very long time. Oh, YouTube, how I love you for helping me find those forgotten songs I loved! The first time I heard the song, “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel, I was captivated by the feeling it gave me. There was something about it that felt “big” to me, and that 7/4 time signature really reached out and grabbed me. The esoteric nature of the lyrics was more catchy to me than Don Mclean’s “American Pie”. Listening to it all these years later that same feeling swept over me along with a cache of memories.

We all have similar stories about a song that moved us. From concerts to radio, to YouTube, to jamming out in our cars, music has the ability to affect us with emotions ranging from sadness to joy.

Music influences us in ways in which other ordinary sounds do not. And scientists have been exploring the “why” for years now. Experimenting with different technologies they’re finally starting to discover some answers. Employing Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology (fMRI), they’re learning why music evokes such powerful feelings and can unite us so closely with others.

According to neurobiologist Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University, “Music affects deep emotional centers within the brain…A single sound tone is not really pleasurable in itself; but if these sounds are organized over time in some sort of arrangement, it’s amazingly powerful.“

Music Really Can Make Your Brain Happy

Just how powerful is music in affecting one’s brain? In one of the studies she performed, she and her team recorded participants’ brain activity via MRI while the subjects listened to music which they personally enjoyed. Coinciding with peak emotional points within the songs as identified by the participants, dopamine was discharged into the nucleus accumbens, an area deep inside our human brain.

According to Salimpoor, “That’s a big deal, because dopamine is released with biological rewards, like eating and sex, for example…It’s also released with drugs that are very powerful and addictive, like cocaine or amphetamines.” No wonder we listen to our favorite music over and over again.

Furthermore, there’s yet another a part of the brain, the caudate nucleus, that slowly steeps dopamine, precisely prior to those peak emotional elements during a song. This area is associated with the anticipation of pleasure. It appears that this anticipatory gratification comes from familiarity with the song. In other words, there is a pleasant memory connected with the song that is stored in your brain, so you anticipate the emotional high points that are about to be replayed.

This mixture of anticipation and enjoyment can provide a powerful combination, one that likely means that we actually tend to be biologically motivated to listen to the music we like best.

So then, what happens inside our brains when we enjoy a new song that we haven’t heard before? Salimpoor once more connected participants to MRIs to find out. However, now she had them listen to unfamiliar songs. And she provided them with money, encouraging them to use it to buy any of the music they liked.

Upon analysis of the participants’ brain scans, Salimpoor discovered that if they liked a song well enough to purchase it, dopamine once more flowed into the nucleus accumbens. Interestingly, she also noticed magnified interaction between the nucleus accumbens and the higher functioning structures of the brain active in pattern recognition, musical memory, and the processing of emotional responses.

This led Salimpoor to a fascinating hypothesis: that when we hear new music, our mind’s method of processing the sounds employs memory circuits in the brain. In this way, the brain seeks recognizable patterns to assist us in creating predictions as to where the song is going next. So if the music simply sounds too foreign, the brain will have too much difficulty identifying the song’s structure, and the listener won’t like it. In other words, there is no dopamine release.

However, if the song has enough recognizable characteristics, such as a familiar rhythm or melody, then the listener will be more likely to anticipate the coming emotional peaks and will find pleasure in it. Again, the dopamine reward comes from having their anticipations confirmed, or perhaps slightly fooled and thus, surprised in intriguing ways.

“It’s kind of like a roller coaster ride,” says Salimpoor, “where you know what’s going to happen, but you can still be pleasantly surprised and enjoy it.”

All this is why Salimpoor believes that the sublime mixture of anticipation and exquisite emotional reward makes a compelling case for why we love music so much, even though we have such varying preferences of styles in music. One’s personal taste in music relies on the exposure to different musical sounds and patterns embedded in the brain over the span of one’s lifetime. This explains why pop songs are indeed popular. The melodies and rhythmic structures are largely predictable, even if the song is new and unfamiliar to us. This is also why jazz, with its intricate melodies, dissonant chords, and complicated rhythms is typically a preference that is acquired after considerable musical experience.

But then, people also tend to tire of pop music more quickly than they do of jazz or classical music for a similar reason—it often becomes too predictable and then, boring (no more dopamine).

Salimpoor’s findings also present a good explanation as to why we can listen to a familiar song repeatedly and still enjoy it. The emotional buzz from a familiar song may be so powerful, that it can be easily re-stimulated for years afterward.

“If I asked you to tell me a memory from high school, you would be able to tell me a memory,” states Salimpoor. “But, if you listened to a piece of music from high school, you would actually feel the emotions.”

I believe this explains why I still deeply enjoyed “Solsbury Hill” this morning. It’s not just the “bigness”, the lyrics, or the interesting rhythm that intrigues me. Rather it brings back a replay of listening to the radio in my ’67 Pontiac Firebird while cruising down the road in my more carefree teen years. I guess that the anticipatory pleasure structure in my brain was hard at work for lots of reasons.

And, fortunately, since this particular pleasure neuropathway is deeply embedded in my brain, “Solsbury Hill” can still provide that dopamine buzz that helps lift me from the shadows.

Related News Item

On a different note, I am planning the release of a new solo piano track on October 30, 2018. “Silhouette of a Soul” is a haunting melody that came about as an expression of a long and fairly silent battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and depression. When facing depression or chronic health issues, many people are like me, and we tend to internalize our feelings and we seek to disguise or hide them from others. The song title itself is an expression of this aspect of my life. A silhouette is a shrouded image of something real and stands contrasted by its light source. Most of us, when struggling inwardly, don’t feel like our real selves. It’s as though we portray an outline of who we are, and others can’t see the real us which is in shadow.

Like most people, I don’t like to talk with others about it when I am wrestling with these issues. This probably keeps me “in shadow” longer than I may otherwise be. And typically, that which is difficult for me to speak out to another person is much easier for me to “play out” through music. The relief I find often reminds me of the therapeutic virtues of music as discussed in the above article. And so I want to encourage others to take advantage of this wonderful medium of music which helps us connect with ourselves and with others.

In much the same way that I have written other songs, I was at the piano experimenting with chord texture and melody to create a sound to convey a snapshot of my inner life at the time. So this song echoes some of the same patterns I experience when quietly struggling in the shadows of depression or fatigue. There is some irregularity of tempo, some dissonance in the chord and melody structures, and then the pleasant relief that comes with departures from the more haunting elements of the music. My desire is that others will relate and will experience enjoyment in this new song, and receive hope through this message.

During the pre-release of the song and throughout the remainder of 2018, one-half of the profits from all related sales will be donated to the Solve ME/CFS Initiative. The organization is a not-for-profit association dedicated to ending Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and Chronic fatigue syndrome. I encourage my readers to look them up and consider making a donation.

Watch for more news about the upcoming release soon. To keep even more up to date, follow me on Facebook.

Thanks for reading,
  ~ Mike Knapp