Music makes 'mornings' break in your brain

I have never been big on celebrating my own birthday. I also have no dramatic reason for not celebrating it, except that I am just caught up with unraveling, in varying degrees, the suns and moons that have been rising since I was born that I overlook that one day.

But there is one thing I usually do to mark my birthdays or any other special day: I learn a new song, learn how to sing an old song, or how to play it in the guitar. And whenever I do, the memory is seared in my brain so deeply that it becomes sort of the "dinosaur" (this is what museum people call the main attractions in their museums even if they do not necessarily refer to dinosaurs) in the museum of my memories.

On my recent birthday, my friends and I took a small boat at 5:30 am to watch the sunrise from the islands where we were staying at. The night before, they made me agree to do one thing: sing "Morning Has Broken" as the sun comes up. And so I did.

I thought it was a decent rendition, but what was more important was that I had musically bookmarked that particular sunrise in my life, and I will always have that "portable" memory of a beautiful sunbreak with me. What was funny was that before my friends all left for their respective homes, they told me that they could no longer watch a sunrise without hearing "Morning Has Broken" in their heads. I told them it was like a spell!

Music is not just about the notes, the number of bars, the instruments, the keys, or the words. It is all that, and also what you feel when you listen to music or perform it yourself. It is like parts of yourself become their own notations on a sheet, and so when that music is played, the experience of that music is the melodic memory of you at that time. This is why the effect of music differs from one person to another.

This is what studies on music and the brain found. What happens in your brain when you listen to music you like and dislike are very different in terms of the blood flow to regions of your brain. And when it comes to your favorite music (not just music you simply like), the activated regions of your brain are also different.

When you listen to the music you like, the brain parts that have to do with self-reflection and socio-emotional memories, including empathy, connect. These are regions that link when your brain goes on a "free-fall" mode (technically, it is called the "default mode" of your brain) and you think about hopes and dreams for the days to come – for you, and the ones you care about. This does not happen when you listen to music you do not like. When it comes to listening to your favorite music, studies found that the parts of the brain that have to do with long-term memory were less tied to the parts that processed sound. The scientists who did the research think that our favorite music naturally retrieves deep memories that we play back in our heads, so there is less memory-making that happens when the music is currently played.

To me, the deep ties between music and memories explain in part a question I have been thinking about recently. Before social media, when music was channeled mostly through radio, television, vinyl and CDs, people had more common music that scored their daily lives, and thus, their memories. You may dislike some songs but since it was just the radio or the stereo back then, what was playing wherever you were – at home or in public places – was mostly shared with everyone else. That scored our collective lives. Now, with fragmented channels, each person can curate his or her own playlist. Today, we no longer share as much in common and collective memories seared in the same music, in the scale that we had in my generation and before that. There is no shortage of music to like, before or now, but there is a lot less set of music we can all like and sing together, out of which we can sew collective memories.

A more recent study strengthens the case for the power of music that we like over our lives. In a study of patients with Alzheimer's, researchers found that when patients listen to music that has been personalized according to their preferences, regions of the brain that are silent come alive. More studies have to be done to make it conclusive, but there is promise – as previous studies have shown – that music therapy helps in the recovery of movement in patients who had strokes, traumatic brain injuries, Parkinson's disease, and cerebral palsy.

Music is a powerful emotional glue. When played, it becomes entwined with your memories and a part of who you are. This is why it can be therapy, and it can also be a weapon to lasso you to a memory which you co-created. What kind of suns and moons will the music you choose break for you? –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at