THE BLOG

Giving up Music for Lent

02/18/2015 05:46 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015
Paul M O'Connell via Getty Images

For Lent this year I'm going to try and give up music. Everyday, many of us listen to vast amounts of music and it has become part of our daily routine. One study showed that compared with only five years ago, youngsters spend 47 more minutes a day listening to music and other audio. Incidental music is also everywhere; turn on the TV, go to the restaurant, or watch a soccer game and you'll hear music. What effect does this widespread consumption of music have on us?

There is an urban myth that listening to music makes you more intelligent, but I'm not anticipating getting any dumber during Lent. While there are CDs of music that are meant to help increase IQ, the scientific evidence is that they do nothing for long term intelligence. Studies into the so-called Mozart Effect have shown that listening to music can boost an ability to do a specific type of spatial reasoning, a sort of reverse mental origami, but any increase in ability is lost after 15 minutes.

As an amateur musician, I expect the biggest deprivation from this study will be the fact I can't play my saxophone. Many scientific studies have demonstrated that learning a musical instrument changes how the brain processes sounds. There is also a small boost in IQ, but in one study, it took a year of lessons to see an increase of only 3-4 points in IQ. Researchers have started to uncover evidence that musical training may help with cognitive decline in old age. One of the many cognitive functions that can diminish with age is our ability to comprehend speech. A recent Canadian study showed that 55-75 year olds who had been given intensive musical training when younger, were 20 percent faster at identifying sounds in speech identification tasks than their peers who hadn't had any musical training. Gavin Bidelman who led the study commented, "Old musicians' brains provide a much more detailed, clean and accurate depiction of the speech signal, which is likely why they are much more sensitive and better at understanding speech."

One thing people gain from listening to music is that it can help regulate mood and emotion, and there is good scientific evidence for this being effective. For example, in 2013 Japanese researchers reported on a study where they got 44 volunteers to listen to sad and happy music. They concluded that sad music might alleviate negative emotions in peoples' lives, as perversely, listening to sad music can be pleasurable. The paper authors commented, "Emotion experienced by music has no direct danger or harm unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life. Therefore, we can even enjoy unpleasant emotion such as sadness."

While music is an easy way to regulate emotion, there are other ones available to me during Lent, such as having a drink or taking exercise. But music is used both in pubs and gyms, and so I'll have to be careful. A study by Nicolas Guéguen and colleagues showed how loud music is useful to landlords because it makes people drink faster and consume more, so it is hardly surprising that piped music is played in pubs. And the background music you hear in the gym is also supported by scientific studies that have shown it to have a variety of beneficial effects, for example for low to moderate exercise it has been shown to reduce perceptions of exercise intensity by about ten percent.

While there have been many scientific studies investigating the positive effects of music, there have been far fewer looking at the harm it might cause, except possibly investigations into hearing loss or annoyance caused by others playing music inconsiderately. Can you think of any benefits I might gain from not having music for Lent?