The Biological Impact of Rhythm and Pitch

For years, we have used music to soothe our souls and comfort pain. Parents sing lullabies and we mark special occasions such as birthdays, graduations, and weddings with songs. We rely on music to help us power through workouts and tackle tasks we’d rather ignore, and we manipulate our moods with melodies.

Music is so deeply woven into the fabric of our being, that it can help us connect with those who have suffered significant cognitive loss. Some nearly non-communicative people with Alzheimer’s sing along and engage in conversation when music from their youth is played. Former dancers’ bodies move instinctively to familiar tunes, even though activities of daily living now challenge their coordination.

Q. How does music elicit such a powerful effect on the mind?

Music has long been celebrated for its aesthetic and emotional power, but its effects extend far beyond the realm of subjective experience.

Q. Can rhythm and pitch influence our biology? 

Biological Resonance

The pattern of beats and intervals in music, are naturally tied to the body’s natural rhythms. Our heartbeat, breathing, and the physical, mental, and behaviour changes that the body goes through in a 24-hour cycle all follow rhythmic patterns, making us naturally responsive to rhythmic stimuli. Rhythmic patterns can synchronise with our biological rhythms, producing tangible effects on our physical state.

For instance, studies have shown that listening to music can lead to entrainment, where the body’s internal rhythms synchronise with external beats. This synchronisation can have calming effects, lowering heart rate and reducing stress levels. Conversely, faster rhythms can increase arousal, enhancing alertness and physical performance. This explains why rhythmic music is a staple in athletic and military training, where it is used to boost endurance and coordination.

The Power of Pitch

The perceived frequency of a sound, also plays a significant role in influencing our biology. Different pitches can produce a range of emotional and physiological responses. High-pitched sounds often signal urgency or excitement, triggering the release of adrenaline and increasing alertness. In contrast, lower pitches tend to have a soothing effect, promoting relaxation and even sleep.

The biological impact of pitch is also evident in how it can affect our brainwaves. Research has shown that listening to music with specific pitch patterns can alter brainwave activity, promoting states ranging from heightened focus to deep relaxation. For example, certain pitches and harmonics are known to induce alpha waves, which are associated with relaxed, meditative states.

Therapeutic Applications

Music therapy, has shown to be effective in treating a range of conditions, from anxiety and depression to chronic pain and neurological disorders. The ability of music to influence heart rate, hormone levels, and brain activity makes it a powerful tool in medical treatment.

For instance, rhythmic entrainment has been used in stroke rehabilitation to improve motor function and coordination. Patients engage in rhythmic exercises that help retrain the brain and body to work together. Similarly, the calming effects of certain pitches have been utilized in therapies for anxiety and PTSD, helping patients manage their symptoms through guided music sessions.

The Impact of Music on Mood

Listening to or creating music can significantly impact our emotions by increasing blood flow to region of the brain  involved in generating and regulating feelings. The limbic system, which is key for processing emotions and memory, becomes highly active when we listen to music.

The chills we experience when listening to a particularly piece of music are linked to dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and well-being. Familiar music can trigger dopamine release even with just the first few bars, similar to how Pavlov’s dogs learned to associate a bell with food and began salivating at its sound.

Music can influence our mood even if we don’t consciously recognise the melodies. Studies have shown that individuals with brain injuries who lost the ability to distinguish melodies could still perceive the emotions conveyed by music. This is because damage to the temporal lobes, which process melody, did not affect the frontal lobes, which regulate emotion.

Evidence also suggests that music can help the brain process information more efficiently and adapt more readily. For example, a study published in the journal *Brain* found that stroke survivors who listened to music daily showed significant improvements in verbal memory and cognition compared to those who listened to audiobooks or nothing at all.

The Universal Physical Response to Music

Recent research from Finland maps how we experience music-induced sensations in the body. Responses like goosebumps or increased heart rate vary depending on the music’s mood. Happy and danceable music tends to be felt in the arms and legs, while sad music is often felt in the chest.

These physical responses to music are consistent across cultures, suggesting that our reactions are rooted in biology rather than learned behaviour.

The Science Behind Music and Our Bodies

Both music and the human body operate on elemental vibrations. Music, experienced as electrical impulses with specific frequencies, resonates with us because our bodies are composed of similar vibrations. Our ears convert air molecule vibrations into electrical signals, which our brains perceive as sound. This process explains why music can evoke such profound emotional and physical responses—it’s rooted in physics.

Broader Benefits of Music

Music can lower blood pressure, regulate heartbeat, release endorphins, reduce stress hormones, and stimulate the brain, among other benefits. For children, studying music can enhance concentration, vocabulary, reading skills, problem-solving abilities, creativity, and persistence.

Interestingly, musicians might not experience the same relaxation benefits from music as non-musicians, possibly because they mentally engage with the music in a way that inhibits the autonomic nervous system responses seen in others.

Music and Plant Growth

There have been multiple studies regarding the potential impact of music on plants.

One study, conducted in 1962, found that the growth rate of plants can be accelerated when plants are exposed to music. This study found that different types of music, including classical music and reggae music, all had an impact on a plant’s growth rate. This particular study found that violin sounds had a stronger effect on plant growth than other types of musical sounds.

Another research held around the same time discovered that music even impacted seeds’ development. The study, conducted by a Canadian researcher, found that wheat seeds increased their yield by 66% when exposed to classical music, more specifically, Bach’s violin sonata. These types of studies have been repeated over the years, and they all reached the same general conclusion: that music can impact plant growth.

Believe it or not, studies indicate that plants also seem to have a specific taste in music! Some genres of music promote growth, whereas others can be damaging. Roses in particular seem to love violin music. For most plants playing classical or jazz music caused growth to increase, while harsher metal music induced stress. This may be because the vibrations of metal music are too intense for plants and stimulate cells a little too much.

Great food for thought!


Basil Reynolds

Coaching Consultant

Finding the Music Inside