Cartoon of a family singing around a pianoMusic can lift you up. It can bring tears to your eyes. It can help you relax or make you get up and dance. You probably hear it several times a day—on the radio or TV, in the supermarket, at the gym or hummed by a passerby. Music’s been with us since ancient times, and it’s part of every known culture. Music strikes a chord with all of us.

“There’s something about music and engaging in musical activities that appears to be very stimulating for the brain and body,” says neuroscientist Dr. Petr Janata of the University of California, Davis. Singing favorite songs with family and friends, playing in a band or dancing to music can also help you bond with others. “It’s a way of synchronizing groups of people and engaging in a common activity that everyone can do at the same time,” Janata adds.

NIH-funded scientists are exploring the different ways music can influence our bodies and minds. Their research may also shed light on creative processes. Ultimately, scientists hope to harness the power of music to develop new treatments for people with stroke, autism and many other conditions.

Several well-controlled studies have found that listening to music can alleviate pain or reduce the need for pain medications. Other research suggests that music can benefit heart disease patients by reducing their blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety. Music therapy has also been shown to lift the spirits of patients with depression. Making music yourself—either playing instruments or singing—can have therapeutic effects as well.

Scientists have long known that when music and other sounds enter the ear, they’re converted to electrical signals. The signals travel up the auditory nerve to the brain’s auditory cortex, which processes sound. From there, the brain’s responses to music become much more complex.

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