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From the Bee Gees to Neuroscience…yup!

Updated: Feb 1

I was at a frozen food store yesterday, music was playing and I was humming along. After a while, still undecided as to what food to choose, I started singing to myself (in a low voice of course!)

How deep is your love album cover

I know your eyes in the morning sun I feel you touch me in the pouring rain And the moment that you wander far from me I wanna feel you in my arms again (...)

How deep is your love, how deep is your love

I really mean to learn

'Cause we're living in a world of fools

Breaking us down when they all should let us be

We belong to you and me

Seriously , I hadn’t even realized I was doing it…and then I did. I couldn't believe I was singing along to a Bee Gees song I hadn’t heard in a very very long time (at least as far as I’m aware). Here’s the thing: I most likely heard the song numerous times unknowingly, in an elevator, in a store, who knows?

I knew the lyrics to the songs. Yet if you’d asked me 5 minutes earlier if I knew the song, I’d have said that I remember it, I might have hummed it, but sing it? No. And yet I did! I know it really well apparently. I was tiny when it was popular and playing on the radio and it seems it’s imprinted somewhere in my brain (why, why remember that and not remember much more useful information?)

Brain and music

What’s fascinating here is that it’s not a song I particularly like. One might even say I used to dislike it. :-) So what gives? What part of my brain memorized this song 100 years ago and regurgitated it yesterday.? I listen to music all the time: did my brain react to the music? I’m obsessed with words: did the word part of my brain react?

Does this fall under the “once you know how to bike you never forget it" category? Is it because I learned that song before a certain age? Or a number of “reminders” I had over the years? Or is there a type of music that leaves a longer imprint in the brain?

I asked myself so many questions at that moment. And yes, you guessed it, I googled and youtubed it as soon as I got home. There might be more than one answer to my questions but most definitely, music is key here. Music and the brain is a fascinating subject, I got lost watching videos and reading articles about all the different ways music affects us.

Here's a brief summary of what I learned:

- Music is a universal human skill. It seems the earliest musical instruments we know of are at least 40,000 years old.

- Music affects us at the biological level. Here are just a few examples :

  • Music affects our blood pressure and heart rate

  • Music affects pathways in the limbic system (involved in learning, memory, emotional response)

  • EEG imagery shows that different types of music affect brain waves differently

  • Listening to music you like activates the same pathways as when you perform a social task that requires empathy

  • Dopamine is released when the favourite part of a song you were waiting for comes up

  • (dopamine is also involved in processing information, motivation, attention, movement, and addiction)

  • Oxytocin levels (a hormone associated with empathy, trust, and relationship building) are raised when people sing together.

  • Cortisol level (the “stress hormone”) goes down

If I circle back to my favourite subject, language learning and the brain, I found that:

“More and more research is showing us that at least some musical education has a positive impact on social and cognitive development of children. And these effects are long-lasting: better hearing, better motor skills, improved memory - which incidentally appears to go on all the way through into old age - better verbal and literacy skills, even, some suggest, better skills at mathematics.”

Digging further, here are a few interesting facts :

  • Music activates pathways in our limbic system

(the limbic system – which includes the amygdala and the hippocampus- controls basic emotions and drives. It’s also involved in processing long-term memory (and more).

  • Music activates a reward and motivation center very deep in our brain called the striatum by triggering the release of dopamine

  • Different music styles (different tempos) have different effects on the prefrontal cortex.

There’s so much more I could tell you about Music and the brain. I’m trying to stay focused on music and learning, trying not to get lost in the endless benefits of listening to music :-)

Of course the type of music you listen to can get in the way of your learning. If you're learning by doing exercises or focusing on writing a text while listening to a music you love and want to sing the lyrics to, focus might be difficult.

So if you don't like learning in silence (I know I can't), then use music to enhance your learning. What you can do is align your music choices with your learning goals:

  • Listen to calmer music with no lyrics when you need to focus - music will help you focus and also might help you memorize better

  • Listen to music in the car or in public transportation that has lyrics you can listen to and sing to and enjoy. Maybe look the lyrics up and figure out what they mean and then sing ! (more about this on this video)

  • Listen to music you love, your favorite music, to lower your stress and be in a good place before a meeting or an event that makes you nervous about using English or French

And if you need any advice, support, accountability, coaching around your language learning, send me a message, if I can help, I will :-)


Some of my research

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