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Music may help you think more clearly by getting your brain into a groove

You can dance if you want to.

By Cassidy Ward
Young woman listening to music and using laptop at cafe

In the 2016 animated film Sing, a theater owner named Buster Moon attempts to save his struggling theater by holding a singing competition. Things go poorly. That is, until the residents of the town find their groove and stage an impromptu performance which impresses their corner of the world including a wealthy sheep who saves the theater.

There is a certain power in music which is hard to describe. It can conjure emotions, trigger memories, and help us focus on important tasks. Understanding precisely how that happens has long eluded us, but a recent study might have revealed at least part of the answer.

Takemune Fukuie, a PhD student in the Soy Lab at the University of Tsukuba, is the first author of a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports. Fukuie, along with colleagues, exposed study participants to groove music while performing cognitive tests and found that most of the time people have stronger performance when they can get into a groove.

The team looked at activity in a region of the brain known as the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area which is associated with executive function, and found enhanced activity in participants who reported a strong “groove sensation” when listening to music.

“The effect depends on the level of psychological response, that is, there were individual differences in the effect,” Fukuie told SYFY WIRE.

Fifty-one study participants listened to either groove music — drum breaks with a low to medium degree of syncopation — or white noise metronome for three minutes. They were asked to perform the Stroop task before and after listening. The Stroop task presents participants with the names of colors printed in contrasting colored inks. For instance, you may read the word “blue” but see the color red. You’re then asked to identify the printed color of the word. The incongruity of the opposing stimuli causes your brain to stumble. However, those participants who got into a groove had stronger performance.

Researchers also monitored activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex using near-infrared spectroscopy and confirmed an elevated level of activity in participants who got into a musical rhythm. Exposure to groove rhythms resulted in significantly higher scores than the white noise metronome, as did associated feelings of wanting to move with the music, resonating with the rhythm, or having fun. Conversely, those individuals who felt as if they were struggling to sync with the tunes or who did not enjoy the music, experience decreased executive function.

“We used the comparison of two conditions and tested them statistically. We can say that groove rhythm was significantly effective for enhancing prefrontal cortex function in the groove familiar cluster, those who experienced a strong groove and were feeling clear-headed,” Fukuie said.

That seems to point to a conclusion that it’s not the specific music itself which causes the positive effect. Rather, it’s an individual’s personal experience of the music. That said, groove rhythms do appear to tick the right boxes for most people, at least inside the sample population. In the wider population, different types of music may be more or less effective for different people.

“In the current study, we focused on a rhythmic component without melody and harmony. We did not use popular music because they include lots of factors like melody, harmony, genre, lyrics, artist, memory, etc.,” Fukuie said.

The evidence also suggests that genre or artist may no be important outside the lab. Instead, what appears to be important is a certain level of contrast with expectations. Study authors noted that a balance between expectation and the violation of the rhythm is important, as deviation from the predicted rhythm might be necessary to activate the brain’s reward systems. It’s those reward systems which might be doing all the heavy lifting in giving your executive function a boost.

This could have implications for a whole host of performance metrics including work performance, academic performance, and the effectiveness of exercise. So, the next time you get called into an office for listening to music while you’re working, rest easy knowing that you have science on your side.