Music is a fundamental attribute of the human species. Virtually all cultures, from the most primitive to the most advanced, make music. It’s been true through history, and it’s true throughout an individual’s lifespan. In tune or not, we humans sing and hum; in time or not, we clap and sway; in step or not, we dance and bounce.
The human brain and nervous system are hard-wired to distinguish music from noise and to respond to rhythm and repetition, tones, and tunes. Is this a biologic accident, or does it serve a purpose? It’s not possible to say. Still, a varied group of studies suggests that music may enhance human health and performance.
In every era of human history and in every society around the globe, music has allowed people to express their feelings and communicate with others. More than simply expressing emotions, music can alter them; as British dramatist William Congreve put it in 1697, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” Few things are more stressful than illness and surgery. Can music reduce stress in these difficult circumstances? Several trials show it can.
Soothing jangled nerves is one thing; raising sagging spirits, another. Bright, cheerful music can make people of all ages feel happy, energetic, and alert, and music may even has a role in lifting the mood of people with depressive illnesses. Bach may never replace Prozac, but when it comes to depression, even a little help strikes a welcome chord.